A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Of Cats and Air-horns

A cat, a baby, a mother, and a construction worker all walk into a thought experiment.  Stop me if you've heard this one already.

I want to look more deeply at information and context and how context allows us to form meaning from otherwise neutral information.  And it seems a little story is the easiest way to get this done.

In the summer of nineteen hundred and something or other, the town of Smallville was busy digging a tunnel for a new road on the edge of town.  It was an all day, week after week affair as the tunnel was long and the mountain was made mostly of solid rock.  Carving through the hillside required a lot of blasting and digging and more blasting and more digging.  The impact of this project on one small family will illustrate a great deal about how context helps us form our own personal realities and can even shape how we perceive and react to unrelated information in the future.

The father of our sample family was a construction worker at the tunnel project.  He went out early every morning and came home late every night, tired from a day of hard work, smelling of dirt and sweat and diesel oil. The mother stayed at home during the day, caring for the couple's new infant.  The infant spent his days slowing growing aware of his own existence and constantly trying to decide whether he was happy or unhappy.  As with most babies, the answer could swing wildly back and forth within a matter of a few minutes.   And the last member of the family was a small 6 year old cat who until recently had been the center of attention in the household.  Then an odd smelling tiny new human arrived.  He was, to the cat, both fascinatingly helpless and bewilderingly clumsy.  And so begins our tale of context and how each member of the family learned to cope with a new piece of information -- the air horn.

For safety reasons, the folks at the tunnel would blow an air horn prior to each new explosion that cut a deeper hole into the mountain.  Occasionally the blasts came in succession of two or three, but most often just a single blast followed the air horn warning.  Then there would be time involved in assessment of the effectiveness of the explosion, clearing of the debris, more digging and drilling, and eventually a new explosion (always preceded by the air horn).

Now the construction worker father felt very happy with his job.  It paid well and was something he had done most of his life.  And since this project was close to home, he could work long days and still have some time for his family.  To him the noise of the worksite was the noise of working hard, getting paid, supporting his family, and having a reason to get up each day.  The sound of the air horn was to him a kind of music.  It was a shrill safety alarm intended to warn of the impending blast, but when he heard it, a piece of him was soothed.  For as long as the air horn kept sounding, he was getting paid and all was right with the world.

Not surprisingly, the rest of his family did not see it this way.

The Cat

The air horn was annoying to the cat, who could hear components of its sound in the very high spectrum that the humans could not hear.   The cat was not aware of how poorly humans hear (though that fact could explain a lot if she ever stopped to think about it) and she did not for example know that the sounding of the air horn actually began with a fraction of a second of very high pitched wheeze that no human could perceive.  All she knew was that there was this all too frequent horn sounding that was messing with her sleeping routine.  But the horn, though annoying, was not the problem.  The problem was that it was followed by an earth shaking rumble that threatened to bring down all the walls around her.  It took her just a couple times, three at most, to realize that the horn was always followed by this little earthquake.  The shaking of the ground had sent her scrambling for cover beneath the coffee table or -- if it was close enough -- behind the couch.

Cats spend most of their day investigating their environment.  They constantly assess changes and relate these changes to whether or not they are more secure than the day before.  Because to a cat, security is everything.  Except when they are pre-occupied with being hungry, a cat's primary concern is feeling safe.  And this new earthquake business was definitely not making her feel safe.

But because cats take so seriously the idea of assessing the safety of their environment, they are quick to form conclusions about the data they have gathered.  And this little tabby figured out very quickly that the air horn had some interesting features.  To begin with, it never sounded before the sun had reached the television and the home was filled with the smell of coffee.  So as long as it was night or early morning, she was fine.  She also figured out that the one who left the house every day missed all the action.  Whenever he was home from ranging, things were always quiet.  (I have often wondered what cats think we do all day when we leave for work.  It makes some amount of sense that they would think we are off hunting and protecting the range, so I have decided to go with it.  In reality, no cat has ever told me any of the best kept cat secrets, so take this analysis with a grain of salt.)

The Mother

The mother was conflicted about the air horn.  It reminded her that her husband was nearby.  She liked that she could in some sense, "hear him at work."   She also knew that the period of time they would be close to the house was not that long.  Soon the air horn and explosions would be much less jarring.  But she also was a very busy new mother with an infant, and any noise that could wake a just sleeping baby was not a good thing.  She often tensed at the sound of the horn simply because she knew it was likely to be followed by the wail of a baby.

The Baby

The infant knew less than the cat about what was going on.  He did not remember a world without the air horn.  And like the cat he did not like the shaking of the house.  But the baby had a couple things going for him.  His sense of safety was greatly improved if his mother was near (unlike the cat who was unconsolable if she believed the house was about to collapse).  And also he did not make any connections about the timing of the air horn.  To his very young mind, each new disruption was a fresh event, to be responded to but never feared.  Whereas the cat adjusted its daily routine a bit in response to the turmoil, the baby was barely aware of any routine at all.  There was sleeping and eating and some playing and night and day.  To expect his mind was capable of anything more is to underestimate the enormous job of starting life.  Sure there were the seeds of association and routine forming in his fast developing mind, but honestly just processing all the data that was coming in each second was a full time job for our new little tyke.

So what does this tell us about context.  Sure, it is obvious that each of us has our own perspective, so what's the point of this exercise?  The point is to remember this:  The information -- the air horn -- was identical to each member of the family.  This information came packaged with no context at all.  Each party brought his own context to the moment the information was received.  The two adults understood that it would be followed by an explosion.  The construction worker even knew exactly what that explosion would feel like.  The cat upon hearing the first terrible air horn had no idea that it was merely the precursor to a more horrible event.  And the cat, upon experiencing the first explosion, had no idea whether the walls of the house would even withstand the vibration.  The baby lacked enough context to worry about much of anything except the unpleasantness of the noise.

Each observer has their own perspective.  But what is "perspective"?  This thought exercise suggests that perspective is simply all the context we have already assembled and which we bring to the process of collecting new data.  When we explore "black boxes", and input-output machines, we'll come back to the concept of "perspective" as accumulated context.  First we'll have to see what happens when out-put is completely deterministic -- which is to say, when the "context" meeting each new piece of data is unchanging.  A very simple model for this can be found in the basic electronic component called a "resistor".   Can't wait to get around to that...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Did You Mean to Do That?

Purpose vs. Side Effect

A lot of times, and for no good reason, folks will get tied up thinking about whether outcomes they observe were intentional or not -- whether something was an "accident" or "by design".  The heavy weight title match of this dichotomy is the question of our very existence, of course.  How we came to be who we are.  Was it evolution or creation?  And if it was evolution, could evolution have been set into motion on purpose?

I am not interested in this particular question right now -- though the line of reasoning I am exploring will eventually weigh in with some very interesting considerations for the big questions of the universe (no, really) --- but rather I would like to explore what is the difference between "by accident" and "on purpose" and why do we care?

Why Ask Why?

You might think for most of the world that surrounds us, the question "how?" would be perfectly engaging.  Yet we often seem to get into a spiral of inquiry centered around the question, "Why?"

We have each of us encountered at least once in our life that precocious three or four year old that never tires of asking, "Why?"   And no matter how many times we answer the next question is always the same -- "Why?"  But this is usually our fault.  Because without knowing it we automatically answer each questions with "how" not "why".  Case in point:

Q: Why is the car moving?
A: Because I am pressing the gas pedal which tells the car to move.
Q: Why?
A: Because when the engine gets more gas it goes faster.
Q Why?
A: Because when gas burns it moves the wheels and when more gas is added, the wheels move faster.
Q: Why?
A: Because gas expands when it is burned and more gas means more expansion.
A:  Because it, uh, well it has to go somewhere and it gets too crowded and moves out of the way.
Q: Why?

At this point "A" is tempted to trot out some of his high school physics just for fun and say something about how PV=nRT, but he is beaten and he knows it.  "Just because" he says finally.  And the judges award him five points for staying in the fight five rounds.

But it's A's own fault.  He never once answered any question with "why" it was all just "how".   And that is how most of us lose this game.  The four year old could care less about car engines.  What she wants to know is why she is alive.  Everything she sees around her is a puzzle, not of how it must work, but why it exists.  PV=nRT will not tell her that.

A religious minded person might think that the answer would be to talk about God.  But anyone who believes the mere mention of God will quiet the existential awakening of a young mind has another thing coming.  The concept of God raises as many questions as it answers.  If it did not, no one would have ever bothered to ask if God could create a boulder that he could not lift.  Or if unbaptized babies go to heaven.  (The Catholic Church recently changed its mind about this.  Don't ask me how they can do that, but it's true.)  Or could Hitler get to heaven if he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior with his dying breath.  (That question might be particularly offensive if you're Jewish.)  Or, well, you get the idea.

Being told God is the answer is a little like someone leaning in and telling you the answer for number 34 across on your half completed crossword puzzle is "apiaceous".  In the first place, you don't know why they know that and you don't.  In the second place you don't know if you can trust them since you have not discovered it for yourself.  And in the third place you are not even sure what it means.  There is nothing intrinsically satisfying about being told that "God is why." (Not to get too far off topic, but for clarity sake I should say -- The point I am making has nothing to do about whether God exists.  But rather even if God is indeed "why" being told that is not sufficient.  You must discover "Why" for yourself.  And if you conclude that God does not exist, well then, you're right back where you started anyway.)

There is no right answer for the why's of a three year old.  But saying, "No one knows why anything is the way it is, but wondering about it can be really fun"  is one entertaining approach.  And then if the child insists on asking why again, the proper response is to say, "I'm really not sure.  What do you think?"

Some children will shrug and look away.  Others will insist "I don't know" in a kind of "what are you crazy, I'm like 3 and a half" kind of tone.   Some will spin their own theories.  (Kids all behave differently, almost like they are individuals or something.)  But in most cases the child will stop asking you "Why?" at least for a time.  Of course, they won't believe your answer that no one knows and they will move on to asking others.   And 98% of the answers they will receive will be about "how" and not "why".

Lots of folks will take issue with some of my assertions, choosing to view kids questions as "active learning", but I stand by my opinion that in most cases, the question "why" is really an existential one.  Kids learn the power of "no" around the age of two and use the word to define their boundaries and help form their own identity.  It is no surprise to me that fast on the heals of identity comes the question of existence.  It seems a normal progression to me from "I am here" to "Where is here?"

I'm not insisting that each child is experiencing explicit angst about their place in the universe.  Probably very few are actively wondering why they exist.  But the number of times they ask a question with the word "why" instead of "how" is instructive.  They want to know what things mean. And forming meaning, as we recall, is merely the act of context construction.  Just as children need to learn the limits of saying "no" they need to learn the limits of asking why.  That is, in order to put a frame around their experiences they need to know where they have to draw the line.  At what point is it meaningless to keep waiting for extra data to put everything into place?  Where is the outside limit of the biggest all encompassing frame they can imagine?  That is the outer edge of their reality.  That is the limit that defines their universe.  So "no" defines the limits of identity, and "why" defines the limits of the external world.

It Doesn't Matter

As fascinating as existential questions can be, they are usually an obstacle to developing understanding about how things work.  Because as long as we appreciate the real difference between "how" and "why", we realize that we can rarely (if ever) answer "why" anything happens and can much more often answer "how".

"Why" deals with the intent of an action or event (or lack of intent).  "Why is the window broken?" is a very different question from "How did the window break?"   The "how" is easy.  The window broke when a baseball flew through it at 40 miles an hour.  "Why" is a different story.

"The window is broken because we wanted to finally beat the guys from the next street over at something just this once."

"The window is broken because Tommy was playing first base and he is really good so I was trying to hit away from him and shifted my feet to hit down the third base line."

"The window is broken because it rained last night and we had to move home plate."

Now most "how's" can spawn a new question.  Things like "How does glass break?" and "How fast can a baseball travel before it breaks the window?"  But these questions all become increasingly rooted in physical science and become, at least down to a certain scale, MORE answerable and less vague as we go.  No so with "Why's".

"Why" questions become increasingly abstract and lead us away from immediately useful knowledge about the matter at hand.  "Why was it so important to beat the other guys from the neighborhood?"  "Why is Tommy so good at playing first base?"  and even "Why did it rain last night?"   The further we pursue this line of inquiry -- like the persistent 3 yr. old -- the farther away we get from the original point, namely, "I'm looking at a broken window and I want to know what's going on."  A lengthy discussion about how "an occluded front moved in from the gulf states on Wednesday and brought the rain that caused us to move home plate and  made a foul ball more likely to hit the window" is not usually helpful in this circumstance -- and even if it were it still says nothing about WHY we have weather at all.  It is all still about how the weather happened.

Why Did You Do That?

The question why is all about intent.  There is no "why something happened" without someone meaning to make it happen at some point.  That is why many creation stories have an active participant who decides to create the universe (or man or what have you).  If you say the Titans were born out of the foam between heaven and earth (like the foam that forms at the edge of the sea between earth and sea), then you have explained HOW the Titans came to be, but not why.  You need an actor who has intent to answer the question "why".

But interestingly we are discovering that even our own intent is not something that is set in stone.  In some sense "intent" is just an excuse that our mind invents to match who we think we are.  Timothy Ferris' book The Mind's Sky, refers to a study where participants were given a post hypnotic suggestion to leave the room upon a certain verbal cue -- such as when a particular subject is mentioned.  The results of this study were fascinating to anyone who thinks he knows why he does anything.  Upon the cue, each subject would get up to leave the room.  When asked by the interviewer why they were leaving, none of the subjects knew it was because they had been hypnotized.  But the fascinating part is that they all offered answers anyway.  "I am thirsty and going to get a soda" they would say, or "I think I left something in my car."

What happened was the mind invented the reason, based on whatever evidence it could find, for why the body it resided in was standing up to leave.

How can we reconcile this with our popular conception of who we are and what it means to have a mind and to intend to do things?  Well it appears there is not really "one mind" in our head, but several distinct thought centers all functioning like different parts of a factory.  Each mind component has its own central task to worry about and is not necessary in synch with the other components.  So we have (at least) one mind component that seeks to unify our identity and coordinate all the competing activities and interests into a cohesive unit.  This would be the "control room" of the factory.

Or picture that your mind is like a small congress.  Each representative has its own constituency.  It has its own thing it must answer for, its own sense of how far it will go to preserve what it believes in, and its own limits for just how much it will compromise with other members of congress to pass its legislation.

It is often said that "Politics stops at the water's edge" and this suggests that in matters of national security, congress will unify and stand together in order to present a "united front" to the rest of the world.  Well our identity is the same way.  We seek to present a "united front" to the outside world.  Our mind works tirelessly to sew together all of the competing interests and compulsions into a unified identity that we can display to the outer world.  And in some sense this is a genuine cohesion.  Just as the nation can really be united in matters of national defense, so too the mind can be genuinely committed to a given identity which is expressed to the outside world.    But to ignore the fact that this identity is the result of a number of competing and often downright contradictory interests is to oversimplify what it means to be human.

So when queried about why it was standing to leave the room, the speaker of the house polls the room and looks for suggestions.  The representative from physiology reports he is thirsty.  The representative from craving says her people want something sweet.  So they co-sponser a bill that suggests they go for a soda.  And there you have it.  The speaker of the house reports, "Where am I going?  Oh I am just going to get a soda."  Only what no one knows is that the compulsion to leave was invented before the rationale for leaving!

So Why Does Anything Happen?

It does not look good for the question, "Why".   If we can not reliably establish our own intention at the time we act, how are we supposed to ascertain why anything external to us happens?  This seems like quite a conundrum.

Fortunately, the answer is to suspend discussions of intent and simply look at HOW things happen, or have happened.  While we can ultimately revisit the big Why's of the world, we can make more progress by ignoring the concept of intent and simply seeing how things take place.  The creation of our own sense of why -- our context -- is an important part of this, but we can approach the concept more productively if we set aside explanations that require intent and simply focus on what is.

This will have interesting implications for everything from conspiracy theories to exploring outer space.  Let's start with a return to conspiracy theory...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Revisiting the Big Blue Marble Brain Thingy

It's high time we brought our hive-mind analogy into the 21st century.

When last we left our heroes, they were engaged in global realtime communication about the Persian Gulf War.  We concluded that they were capable of 62 billion "daily synapses" if we assumed an average of four useful sentences for each person every day.  This compared with just 78 million synapses in the days of early Homo-Sapiens (and their flatmates Neanderthals).

But now we have a brave new world of social media.  Each individual has the potential to communicate in a one-to-many channel that simply did not exist in previous eras.  Okay, strictly speaking this is not true.  "Ham radio" operators have been engaged in one-to-many communication since the early 20th century.  We left them out of our previous calculations.  And the "CB radio" craze that hit the US in the 1970's had a great number of folks asking who had their "ears on" every time they  ran to the store for bread and milk.  This is another form of one-to-many communication that we ignored.  But while these media make perfectly good examples of one-to-many communication it was probably sufficient that we ignored them -- or at least let our assumptions about "media penetration" encompass them as well.  From a numbers point of view, there were not enough folks to really move the needle.

I'm sure there are plenty of examples of folks using ham radios or CB's to spread information about public safety and perform exactly the kind of communication that we would be interested in when considering the individual's ability to act like a brain cell and communicate with the greater organism we call a community.  But on a daily communication capacity basis, the existence of CB and ham radio can comfortably fall into the .1% of folks we assumed could talk to 100 people at once. 

But the internet and its modern persona -- "social media"-- has changed everything.  We now have the equivalent of tens of millions of amateur radio operators logging on and communicating what they ate for breakfast, what they disliked about last night's X Factor, and how great they would look in these new shoes on a daily basis.  OMG. I know, right?  Powerful stuff.

It's easy to talk about how pointless most of what is "communicated" on social media really is.  In fact one would be remiss not to consider that the vast amount of comments are pointless babble.  There is no reason to consider social media as a profound tool for global communication... except for one:  If there ever really is something worth saying, the modern world has an unparalleled capacity to say it.  For all of its whining about homework, sniping about Lindsay Lohan, and obsession about what's for dinner, social media on the whole provides an avenue for exchange of ideas or news updates that is a first for our species.  

Just how powerful is this new medium?  

Well for starters Facebook is thought to have 100 million daily users.  The average number of contacts (friends) for a Facebook user is 100.  Facebook themselves report many more user accounts, but they are happy to inflate the figure by counting inactive or seldom active accounts, so I am sticking with fairly reliable estimates to get at the number of people who could truly communicate on Facebook each day.  And I'll be making another adjustment to assumptions that will further ensure the contact power of Facebook users is not overstated.  More on that later.

But we also have to consider Twitter while we are at it.  Twitter is thought to have 50 million regular users, 10% of whom follow more than 50 people. We'll work those numbers into our formula in a minute.

Beyond these two social media titans we have a number of other sources to consider.  LinkedIn, Yelp, Sina Weibo, and even Myspace and YouTube are among other one-to-many media.  And of course there are countless bloggers on the internet, some of whom have actual traffic to their site.  They would further count towards the communication power of the modern individual.

Duplicate Accounts

But if we are to assign each of these accounts the power of one-to-many media communication, don't we risk double counting or even triple or quadruple counting some folks?  Isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that many Facebook users would also be Twitter users as well?  It is, and that is why we are going to adjust our "synapse" rate to account for this.  For purposes of social media, we will be counting just two meaningful sentence per social media account each day.  This will help reduce duplication of information across different brands of social media.

Doing the Math

So now we can finally assign our 2012 total synaptic magnitude (communication power) of the earth.  We will start with the same assumptions that we used for 1990 -- that .1% of the population is media with a reach of 100, 4.9% are "community leaders" with a reach of 20, and 95% engage in daily one-to-one communication.  But over and beyond this, we are going to add in our Facebook users (100 million people with a reach of 100 each) our Twitter users (5 million folks with a reach of 50 each), and we'll assume another 10 million people on other social media who have 50 contacts each.  In reality these numbers undercount the influence of social media.  Sina Weibo, for example, commonly called the "Chinese Twitter" has 300 million registered users.  Since we don't know enough about how many of those accounts are active and how many people each account follows, we'll be conservative.  We are adding these folks on top of the population, because we are going to go ahead and assume that they are culled from the "95 per centers" who engage in daily one-to-one communication as well.

The population of the planet is 7,029,588,738 as I write this (according to the global population clock at  census.gov).  This is a 33% population growth over 1990 levels.  That fact alone is astounding.  And it leads to a 33% growth in communication capacity as well -- before accounting for social media.  If we use 1990 assumptions on the 2012 population, we end up with 82.36 billion daily "synapses" worldwide.  But factoring in social media adds an incredible 20.7 billion ADDITIONAL messages.  That represents nearly a third of the communication capacity of the entire planet in 1990, added to the mix just because of this thing called the internet.

So the grand total from all sources (again likely undercounting social media participation and allowing these folks only 2 daily sentences instead of 4 for everyone else) is over 103 billion daily sentences.  The "synaptic capacity" of the planet in 2012 is 66% greater than it was 22 years ago.

The Limits of our Assumptions

Earlier I remarked that we should feel free to make assumptions, but should never forget that they are in the end, simply assumptions.  So now that we have reached some sort of end point for our model that explores the growth in communication power of the human race or "synaptic capacity of the hive-mind", it wouldn't hurt to go back and look at the assumptions we made and how they affected our results and most importantly how these assumptions could affect anything we can infer from our results.

The first important assumption we made was to limit daily communication to four sentences.  This seems to artificially downplay the communication power of one-to-one channels.  Because obviously I can have a long conversation with someone and we can exchange many more than four sentences.  So our model appears to have a bias against the effectiveness of one-to-one communication in our daily lives.  But let's reflect on that for a second.  What we wanted to explore in some very general way was the ability of the little human communication nodes -- the human as neuron -- to convey for the benefit of society a piece of information.  Let's look at an example which will make things more clear.

A brain must respond to danger by setting in motion a complex series of communication across the entire brain.   There is the perception of the elements of danger (the "information" portion in our ICA model), there is the assessment of these elements to determine whether any danger exists and if so what the nature of this emergency may be (this is the "context" portion in ICA parlance), and there is the brain activity that must lead to the response to this danger, for example the decision to run away followed by all the requisite muscle movements involved in this activity.  (This is of course the "action" part of ICA.)

Now if we are looking at the earth as if it were a brain (we already agree it is not, but we are imagining it is for the sake of analogy), then we must be thinking of trans-human communication along the same lines of synaptic activity.  So in other words, what if the planet came under attack and the people of earth needed to respond?  There would necessarily be the same process of information-context-action that would take place on a global scale. And human activity would need to communicate the same sorts of elements.  That is to say, some humans would identify the threat and communicate it to others.  These folks would assess the threat and devise a plan, and then they would communicate to other humans who would need to respond to the threat.

Now a global threat that would require the actions of all its citizens is not necessarily something we can easily imagine.  But let's take an alien invasion as a case study just for fun.

Little Green Cavemen from Outer Space

To begin with, let's imagine that a clan of neanderthals were visited by little green cavemen from outer space.  The image delights me, because I can see them armed with their special high tech stone clubs tricked out with whatever little stylistic flourish might give them that Buck Rodgers appeal.  The neanderthals would, obviously, be quite threatened by the arrival of these invading cavemen, who arrived on some huge space Mastodon no doubt. (Look, no one ever knows the propulsion system that brings UFO's to Earth, so the neanderthals are being no more ignorant than witnesses in the 1950's).

Well, the neanderthals want to communicate this global threat to the rest of the planet -- presumably so that action can be taken and survival can be ensured.  Well, they have two problems.  The first is the limited communication capacity we have already explored, and the second is the RANGE of their communication.  In a practical sense, all the nodes of the neanderthal earth are not connected.  It would take a great deal of travel and time for one clan to bring word of the alien invasion to all other clans.  I intentionally ignored that factor in my model.  Why?  Because that limitation goes away in the modern era so it only handicaps the communication capacity of the ancient peoples we already knew had an inferior communication capacity.  No reason to throw sand in their face and remind them that not only are they dumb but also slow.

Little Green Secularists from Outer Space

Leap ahead to the modern era and use the same example.  Only now our aliens are some godless race of humanoids who arrived by some specialized rocket armed with tricked out laser guns.  (Are you sensing a pattern in the ridiculous level of athropomorphization going on?)   Well now at least if we want to convey our concern globally there is a mechanism to do so.   And this is why we limited even one-to-one communication to four sentences a day.  Because in a truly urgent threat, the kind of message that needs to spread like wild-fire, the extra conversational capacity of one-to-one communication is not nearly as important.  What most of the world will be abuzz with is the perception and dissemination of the threat of alien invasion.  True that in the think tanks and command centers where a response is hammered out, there will be a great deal more than four sentences exchanged.  But this critical "context forming" will be taking place among a comparatively small number of nodes, so it is easy to discount again in our model.  Then finally, when they word to "MOBILIZE the military and SHELTER the civilians" needs to be spread, this again will be broadcast with a kind of economy that makes the four sentence daily synapse seem more fair.  Maybe eight sentences would be a better number.  Or ten.  But in the end it doesn't matter.  All that would prove is that the modern world is drastically even more more communicative than it was just 22 years ago.  Choosing a nice low data exchange rate helps keep us from wondering if we have produced a big number just by assigning big numbers to begin with.

In the final analysis we can see that the number of sentences we used as a stand in for our "synapse rate" is not that critical.  If anything it was better to shoot too low.  So this weak spot in the model turns out not to matter.  And we also established that the error of not accounting for how the neanderthal nodes were not all connected was not a real problem, either.   None of these modeling glitches therefore can prevent us from being properly awed by the expansion of global communication capacity.

To Infinity and Beyond

There is much more we haven't considered yet.  So far we've restricted the concept of information to what is communicated between two nodes.  Add in our increasing capacity to STORE information and the brainpower of the modern world becomes mind bogglingly greater than it was 22 years ago.  But quantifying information will have to wait for a better analysis of what we actually mean when we say information.  And figuring out what our new global brainpower may imply for our future is further off still.  But we're chipping away at the edges of this formless conceptual boulder, and that's a start.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Three Amigos: Information, Context, and Action

In the working model I am gradually trying to explore, the universe can be described in terms of three components:  Information, Context, and Action.

A physicist might be more comfortable with the notion that the universe consists of matter and energy (and that matter is just a special case of energy).  That is fine.  On some basic level one could argue that all we see and do and think and dream is simply a complex ballet of energy.  But for my purposes that is a bit like suggesting that all the literature of the world -- from Beowulf and the Bible to the collected works of Shakespeare and all the Harry Potter novels -- is just a "special ballet" of letters.  It is true in a basic sense, but it does little to reflect the content or meaning of the literature in question.

So I can accept that energy is the alphabet of the universe and matter merely its upper case manifestation.  I won't split atoms with particle physicists over their view of reality.  But just as letters congeal somewhere up the chain into plot, motive, and irony, so too the basic building blocks of the universe form the components I am choosing to focus on:  Information, Context, and Action.


I hope to explore in some detail just what is meant by "information" in the future, but just as I have touched upon in the past I think we can make do with the very basic and more or less intuitive sense of what is meant by "information".  This is simply the collection of descriptors we use to define any object or event.  A cup of coffee contains information about its temperature, its weight, its caffeine content, its sweetness, etc.  It also contains information about its location in time and space.  For example my cup of coffee on the morning of July 29th, 2012 in Vermont is different from even a nearly identical cup of coffee on the morning of Jan 1st 1963 in New York City simply because it contains whatever information is necessary to distinguish it from any other cup of coffee.  If an object is unique it will have at least one piece of information that sets it apart from all impostors.

We are awash with information.  If even a simple object like my cup of coffee contains so much information, we'd be hard pressed to consider all of the information contained in every object at every place at one time on the planet.  Too say nothing of all the information that spans time.  

But we don't need to worry about the almost infinite quantity of information in the universe in order to appreciate what information is and how it can be used in the present context.  If we were talking about water, we would not need to concern ourselves with the contents of all the rivers and lakes and oceans on Earth in order to have a basic appreciation for the stuff.  So too with information.  We do not need to worry about how much information is out there nor specifically what that information is in order to describe what we mean by "information".  Information is any piece of data about any thing.


We have touched upon context in the past as well, and we will really plow through this notion now to stick with what we have already determined -- that Context is information placed into some sort of frame of reference.  Context is loaded with power and we can't hope to do it justice right now, so we'll stick with the basic gut reaction that context is the "meaning" we assign to the information we receive.  It is the movie now showing, and any one piece of information is merely the latest character to enter the frame.


Action is simply a special case of information, the same way matter is a special case of energy, but it is useful for our purposes to consider it separately.  Action, in this model, is the response to information which is advised by the current context.

For example, if we stick with the cup of coffee from earlier:  I am at my desk.  I take a sip of coffee.  The coffee is hot.  I decide that it is too hot for comfort.  I put it down and wait a while before I continue to drink it. In this simple model, the relevant information was the temperature of the coffee.  It was hot.  The context I put that into was that it was so hot that I experienced pain when I drank it.  This advised me to perform the action of waiting to drink it.

Now even in such a pathetically simple example there are all kinds of things we glossed over.  The coffee contains much more information than merely its temperature.  Furthermore my decision to pick it up and drink it was advised by a great deal of context -- I have a routine where I drink coffee every morning, I am chemically addicted to caffeine, I wanted the liquid to help wash down the peanut butter toast in my mouth, etc. etc..  And of course I could not take the action of putting down the coffee if I had not taken the actions of making it, pouring it, picking it up, tasting it, and on and on.  Even the "action" of waiting for it to cool is a number of distinct actions including putting it down and deciding not to pick it up for some time and then ultimately deciding to pick it up again.

This one very simple example contains almost too much information, context, and action to hope to describe.  How are we ever to make any progress with bigger concepts than my morning coffee?

The answer lies in the genius of context.  For whatever reason, context is a magical bubble that can expand and contract around information to exclude anything we don't want to be bothered with while trapping neatly inside most or all of the information we do want to consider.  So as we explore the model of ICA (information, context, and action), we can easily stop ourselves from wondering about every fine detail.

When we're riding in a car speeding down the interstate, we may look out the window, but our minds are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we really can't see very much.  We speed past trees so quickly we can't always even make out what kind they are, let alone their age, how healthy they are, whether they house any squirrels inside, etc.  We simply see a bunch of trees and our minds are perfectly content to leave it at that. But if we were walking along a path through the same woods, we would undoubtedly learn just a bit more about the trees around us.  And we could choose to learn even more still if we were so inclined (or if we had some sort of school project to complete.)   The context of our travel down the interstate takes care of excluding huge swaths of information we simply don't care about (or at least accept that we can't perceive).

So we're going to speed down a mental interstate right now.  We are not going to worry about the shape of every tree. We have a destination to get to and we'll settle for blurry shapes passing by, at least for now.

So the three basic particles of my working model about how we think and communicate are Information, Context, and Action.  We're going to be seeing a lot of these Three Amigos.  But don't worry, it will be much less painful than watching the movie.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Of Course We Can Predict the Future

We often hear that the future is unknown, and (in the words of Yogi Berra) "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

We generally accept it on the face of it that we can't predict the future, but of course this is about as far away from the truth as we could be.  The fact is we predict the future all the time.  Our survival and our civilization depend upon it.  And we're very good at it.

Imagine you are at a park and you see a boy who has gotten his frisbee stuck in a tree.  He tries to shake the tree but it is too big and it doesn't budge.  He tries to throw things at the frisbee to knock it down, but he keeps missing.  He almost gets his baseball glove stuck as well before he decides to abandon the idea of throwing other objects into the tree.  Then he gets an idea.

The boy runs off and returns shortly with a jump-rope.  He throws one end of the rope up onto the limb of the tree and, after succeeding in getting it sufficiently stuck, he pulls hard on the tree limb to loosen his toy.  He lets go of the rope and the tree limb bounces back into the air, jump-rope dangling and swinging just above his head.  But the frisbee is really wedged in the branches and doesn't move.  The boy starts to pull hard on the jumprope.  The limb bends down and then bends some more.  It is apparent to you that the limb is near its breaking point.  But the boy keeps pulling until finally, SNAP.  The branch gives way and swings wildly toward the ground, striking the boy in the head.  He starts to cry.  You run over but by the time you get there, others have come to his aid and have determined he is not seriously hurt.

You walk back over to your bench in the park and tell your friend, "I knew that was going to happen." And the thing is, you did know what was going to happen.  From your vantage you could see the limb bending and you sensed it was about to break.  Further you could see that it was likely to swing down and strike the boy when it did.  Was this simply a blind guess or were you telling the future?

I'm not sure where Little Orphan Annie ranks in the pantheon of financial planners, but she has assured us that we can bet our bottom dollar that the sun will come out tomorrow.  Is she some sort of all seeing sorceress?  (She does have the spooky eyes for the job.) How can she possibly predict the future?

Now some folks will insist that I am playing word games or splitting hairs.  Surely the idea that the sun will rise is not telling the future, it's just science, right?  And so is the understanding that a branch pulled by a child to the breaking point will come snapping back and hit him in the face.  This is not what we mean when we talk about predicting the future is it?  And what about the chance that the branch will miss the child as it swings through the air?  Or the one in a gazillion chance that something will happen and the sun will not in fact come out tomorrow? (In which case our bottom dollar is worthless anyway, so it's still a good bet to take.)

Well, what do we mean when we talk about predicting the future?  We usually mean calling for things that will happen or are very likely to happen.  If you learned from a reliable source that you had a 99% chance of being in the path of the oncoming wild-fire, would you really think that it didn't matter because the prediction lacked 100% certainty?  Absolute certainty is clearly not a requirement for us to assess a credible threat, so it can not be a requirement in any of our predictions about what is about to happen.

So what is going on here?  How can the future be both unknowable and so readily predicted in so many ways -- in many cases to accuracy that approaches 100%? Does anything that is "too obvious" not count as predicting the future?  Are we really only concerned with our inability to predict things we don't see coming?  If that is the case, then we are simply defining the future as what we don't know, so who's playing word games now?

No, it is clear that a better assessment of the situation may be something like:

"Our long history of curiosity about our surroundings has lead us to a level of understanding that makes many things appear reasonably certain.  Highly regular events can be predicted to a great degree of accuracy, as can things in the very near future.  However, things subject to a lot of input variables (those containing many "moving parts") are harder to predict.  And events in the distant future which may be subject to the as yet undetermined outcomes of other events which we can not accurately predict become harder still."

I like Yogi Berra's quote better.

But more poetically, it is as if the future is shrouded in fog.  We can make out the details of only those things which are very close.  Further off we can make out shapes, and further still we can not see anything.  Additionally, we can make inferences about things in our environment which appear unchanging.  For example if we stood next to a long stone wall in the fog, we would not need to see it in the distance to be able to infer that it extended out in front of us.  The longer we walk along the wall, the more confident we can be that it continues in front of us -- similar to how we have as a species observed so many sunrises that we understand the almost certainty that sunrises extend into our future for as long as our mortal selves can see.

What are the specific factors that influence our ability to predict the future?  How can we know if we are predicting the future or merely think we are?

The answer to these questions and many other interesting ones lie in the nature of how we perceive information.  And as we have already discussed "perception of information" is merely another way of saying "context".  So we'll be looking at context and the role it plays in our ability to tell the future.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is Earth a Brain? No of Course Not, But...

Let's pretend for a moment that the communication which takes place between human beings is analogous to an electrochemical synaptic firing that conveys some tiny amount of information in cells of the brain.

Now we've already established that the brain is capable of some crazy level of data exchange, but we've also said that most of the data processing power of the brain is either dormant at any given time or focused on biological maintenance issue.  Most of the synaptic firing currency is spent on defense and infrastructure, if you will.

Let's apply the same model and come up with a way to find the raw fire power of the hive-mind if it were actually a brain.  To do this, we need to assign some fairly arbitrary values to some variables, like how much communication between two people constitutes one "synapse".  The nice thing is that we don't need to worry about the accuracy or reasonableness of our values, because all we're really doing is making a model for comparison.

We're going to take what we learned from our brain example and accept right away that not every human-neuron will be firing at peak capacity all the time.  Further we are going to ignore the vast amount of synapses that are dealing with self maintenance.  We also need to come up with some unit of information that might be approximately analogous to a synaptic connection.

Let's start there, with the synapse.  Now, a synaptic connection is something that is passed along the change of connections, branching and looping back as it winds it way around the brain.  If we had to characterize a single synapse, it is as if one neuron is saying to another "Here's a charge.  Pass it on."

And the "pass it on" portion of the process reminds me of the children's game of telephone, where one child whispers to another, "The monkey ate the tree at sundown, pass it on."  Look, I know it makes no sense, but that's what I heard.  "The monkey ate the tree at sundown."  I swear. Now pass it on. Anyway, it doesn't matter.

The point is that it seems fair that we would consider a sentence as an information unit that had some analogous relationship to a synaptic connection.   When one human being on the planet shares a meaningful sentence (or even a meaningless sentence as long as it is a valid sentence) then we can call that "one synapse".   But a neural synapse doesn't carry "meaning", it is just an electrochemical spark of sorts.  Why would we map a meaningful unit of data onto something that had no meaning?

Well, the easy answer is that a sentence does not carry meaning.  It carries information.  Information is nothing but data.  It is perception.  MEANING is what happens when we give data (perception) context.

What is it now?

Take the sentence "It is time."  Since this is a valid sentence, it carries information.  But what sort of information is impossible to tell.  We need to take this data "in relation" to other data -- put it into context -- and then this information helps us to form meaning.  For example, if a chef walks into the room wearing two oven gloves and carrying a steaming casserole dish, what would the sentence, "It is time" suggest to us?  We'd probably think it was time to eat. The meaning is simply "dinnertime!"  But if a pregnant woman has her hand on her belly and tells her husband "It is time," would we really be inclined to think it was dinnertime?  Of course not.  It is time to go to the hospital. And if this happens to be taking place on a sitcom, "it is time" for all sorts of hilarity to ensue.  A prisoner sits in a cell anxious to hear the verdict of his trial.  His lawyer comes to him and says, "It is time."  Do you think the prisoner is thinking that maybe there is a steaming casserole in the other room?  A woman about to give birth?  No, of course he knows it is time to hear the verdict.

Now you may notice that some of this example relies on the fact that the pronoun "it" carries no set meaning. "It" can mean any number of things.  "It" tends to be the most obvious thing for the current context.  That is the magic of this particular pro-noun.  "It" is a stand-in for whatever object or concept is relevant at the time.  "It is on fire." "It is not going to work."  "It is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

But the fact that we don't know what "it" is is precisely why it is important.  The sentence "It is time" is information.  We just don't know what it means.

In fact, we may never know what it means and we don't need to understand the meaning of the sentence for the information to carry meaning for another person.  If I told you to tell Bob that I said "It is time," it doesn't matter if you know what I mean as long as Bob does.  You will tell Bob, "It's time" and Bob will know what "IT" is, so the sentence will have meaning for him even though all it was to you was information with no context.

And as luck would have it, this is precisely what we require of neurons when they perform the voodoo that they do so well.  One neuron says to another "here is data, pass it on"  He does not say "You are not going to believe this but Rachel is finally having her baby."  He just says "The other neuron told me this.  Pass it on."

So in other words, we don't expect or need or even want our neurons to understand the context of the data they are conveying.  We just need them to convey the information.  Which they do -- in the form of firing or not firing.

Now we could get very distracted by continuing to be amazed that the mind can find meaning -- or even information -- from the millions and billions of synaptic firings and non-firings taking place at any given time.  But trying to figure out precisely how a bunch of high speed sparks could ever give rise to symbols, tokens, thoughts, and concepts is not useful right now.  What is useful (or at least interesting) right now is to imagine that each human's information passing capacity may be analogous to a synaptic firing in the brain.

So let's go back to this whole notion of how a sentence can be seen as a basic information block and constitute a "synapse" of sort.  Not because that's the truth, but let's just ponder for a second what things would be like if it were true.

Now humans are passing information units in the form of sentences back and forth all day long.  Do we really want to get into complicated math about firing speeds and total synaptic capacity?  Well, no, in fact we can look at a very simplified model and still have a lot of fun.

Now I don't want to say that most of human communication is just a bunch of nonsense and garbage and gossip... but if we assume that is the case for our model, we can make huge strides in advancing this analogy.  So just as most synaptic firings in the brain have to deal with things that aren't the kind of thinking we are interested in, we'll assume that the vast majority of human communication is not relevant for our purposes.

So what we can do is assume that each human has four sentences every day that carry information that is important enough for us to worry about.  We are skipping all the times Neanderthal Mr. White says to  Neanderthal Mr. Green, "I always hate it when the wind is coming from the carrion pile," and "So I hear you got your wife a new bone handled knife.  I was planning on getting one for my wife, but without celebrating Christmas or birthdays it's hard to know when to time that exactly."  Skipping that stuff.  No, we're saving all of our "data exchanges" for the sentences that carry the really good information.  Things like "Water bad."   And we are going to assume that each human manages (on average) four of those each day.  If this number seems really low, that's a good thing.  We want to make sure that our final model has used very conservative measurements so that we can appreciate the size of the final number without wondering if we inflated it during our assumption process.  So we're allowing for each human to utter 4 information sentences to another human each day.

The Hive-mind 100,000 years ago

Since we've already mentioned the jolly Neanderthals, we can start there.  Recall that most of their communication was one-to-one, except for whatever they may have discussed around the fireside as a group.  Now we don't need an anthropologically sound estimate of their culture to get a decent model of how much communication was going on 100,000 years ago.  We can simply assume that every 20th person was a "fireside chat" leader and whenever he said something important it was heard by 20 other people.  As for the rest of them, their four daily sentences of vital information was shared one-to-one.

Great, we can almost do some math to determine the "synaptic firepower" of the "hive-mind" earth (i.e. total communication capacity) in the dawn of modern man.  But we're still missing something.  We need to know how many neurons (people) there were.

Estimates vary, of course.  There were no Neanderthal census takers going from cave to cave asking entirely inappropriate questions about each family's living arrangements.  The nosy census is a modern invention.  So we have to guess.  But 1 million is a common (and fairly safe) approximation of the population capacity under a nomadic structure.  As agriculture took hold, the population capacity expanded greatly and it is assumed that the global population of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon folks combined never exceeded 15 million.

I think 1 million is an entirely reasonable guesstimate, but I don't want to make the ancient globe less communicative that it really was in relation to the modern one, so I am going to use the more generous assumption of 10 million people.  We suggested that 5% of these people were "team leaders" who communicated with groups of 20 others at one time.  They are the pillars of the community of the ancient world.  What they said carried a lot more clout for communication purposes.

So what we have then is a global population of 10 million folks.  5% of them (500,000) are "community leaders" and convey their message to 20 people each.  95% are simple folk who talk one-to-one.  This yields a daily "communication power" for the planet 100,000 years ago of 78 million sentences or "synapses".

Communication in the Colonial Era

Now let's look at our colonial era earth. It is of course ridiculous to call this the "colonial era" when we are considering the entire planet, but when we are conceptualizing, it helps us to fall back on context we are familiar with, and most Americans have a mental image of the speed of life in the colonies which is easier to conceptualize than trying to imagine China in 1770. So we will think in terms of colonial America, while we understand that we are talking about the population of the entire planet.

For this era, we are going to stick with the assumption that most people perform one-to-one communication.  But we still have a portion of the population that has a greater audience.  We have social, political, and religious gatherings where one or more people have a larger audience.  These are the colonial "community leaders" who speak to groups and perform a simple one-to-many form of communication.  But we also have the birth of media.  There aren't a great many newspapers in the 18th century world, but they do have a greater reach than other forms of communication.  The average colonial newspaper was a weekly with circulation of 500, but in Europe there were dailies like the London Times with circulations in the thousands (5000 in 1815).

Tracking every possible avenue of communication and assigning it a value would be doubly pointless.  To begin with it would be extremely hard to do and secondly it would not be terribly accurate.  But if we take our known data points, we can get an general idea of how we should ballpark the reach of media and other "one-to-many" forms of communication.  So for simplicity, we'll stick with the idea that 5% of the population has a greater reach than the rest (they are ministers, politicians, teachers, activists, business leaders) and we'll stick with the conservative reach of 20 people per day for these folks.  In addition, we are going to assume that .1% of the population has an extended reach through "media".  We'll assign a reach of 100 for this category. All that remains is to get the total population.

The  world population was about 850 million people.  At 4 significant sentences a day with 5% of the population having a one-to-many reach of 20, and .1% reaching 100 people daily, and the rest doing all their talking one-to-one, we end up with just shy of 7 billion daily "synapses".  The population over the time period grew by 85 times, but the communication power is almost 89 times greater.  This is because of the introduction of high reach media (the newspaper).


By the time we get to the 90's we have lots of media to consider -- mostly newspapers, radio and television.  The reach of this media has grown considerably over the media we found in its infancy in 1770.  So we're going to adjust our figures accordingly.  We can keep our assumptions about the vast majority of the population engaging in one-to-one communication, and 5% of the population being "community leaders".  We'll keep the "media" component at .1% but extend its reach to 1000.  Even though some "super media" exist with a reach in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, the vast amount of media we are capturing by assigning a .1% value to the population dictates that we keep very conservative estimates of the reach.

Let's reality check our assumptions here.  The global population in 1990 was 5.28 billion people.  BY saying .1% is "media" we are saying that 5.27 million people have a media reach of 1000.  Now there are only about 44,000 radio stations in the world today (according to the CIA World Factbook), so why are we assuming 5.27 MILLION people have a media reach in 1990?  Well to begin with we are considering all media of the 1990's including not only radios but also television and newspapers and magazines.  But more importantly, we are accounting for the fact that each form of media has more than one writer (or news anchor or DJ) and many forms of media have reaches greater than 1000 people.  So if a weekly magazine has seven writers and a circulation or 100,000 for example, it's daily reach would be 100,000.  So this magazine counts as much as 100 small time media with circulation or listenership of 1000.

So this means we rare assuming 94.9% of the globe still engaged in one-to-one communication, 5% in one-to-many with a reach of 20, and .1% media communicating one-to-many with a reach of 1000 people each day.  Since the population of the planet in 1990 was 5.28 Billion, the daily communication power of the earth in 1990 described in the model was 62 billion "synapses".  The population is 6 times that of 1770 but the communication power is 9 times greater, owing to the increasing influence of media.

Are we there yet?

In modeling our human informational sentences onto a kind of global brain, we are still well short of the awesome synaptic power of the mind -- at least in 1990.  But what happens when social networking allows for individuals to literally "branch out" and become their own one-to-many media channels?  The results are astounding.  And as we shall see, so are the implications for the power and speed of global communication.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assume anything you want. Just don't believe it.

Earlier I said:
If you're going to allow your own preconceptions to rule how you think, you may as well make it easy on yourself and stock up on the microwavable answer packs that the conspiracy theorists sell. 

Which is all well and good until we realize that thinking RELIES on preconception.  As I said before, "context is everything."  And you can't have context without preconception.  In fact if you had to define "preconception" one acceptable definition for our purposes would be "context you have previously constructed."  In other words, we can't understand anything -- we can't put anything into context -- without building on what we think we already know.  We have to ASSUME that certain things are as we expect them to be or we are stuck re-inventing the steering wheel at every turn.  And the assumptions we have about the world, this context we have established to this point in our lives, these are nothing if not preconceptions.  So how could we not "allow our own preconceptions to rule how we think"?

Well, because there is a critical distinction which can be illustrated with a fun little dialogue.

Imagine that we are both sitting around without much to do.  You say to me, "Assuming you had ten million dollars and no commitments to worry about, what would you do with the money?"

I'd say something like, "I think I would buy a really big house in the woods and spend all of my time on the computer.  And in my game room.  I'd have a very nice game room.  What about you?"

"Oh you know, I'd give it to charity.  Except maybe I'd keep some for traveling the world."

"Uh-huh.  Say, do you want to come over and play pool tonight?"

"You don't have a pool table."

"Yeah, I do."

"Since when?"

"Since I got ten million dollars.  I have a huge house with a music studio and a game room and this beautiful pool table."

"Yeah, right.  You never had ten million dollars."

"I didn't?  I guess I just assumed I did."

And you'd clarify the situation for me.  "No, you see, it is fine to assume something.  But don't make the mistake of forgetting that you are only making an assumption.  Just because you assume something does not make it true."

"Yeah, see I knew that.  But it's hard.  I always forget that the things I assume aren't necessarily true."

Oh sure go ahead and laugh at how stupid I must be to forget that we were only pretending to have ten million dollars.  But the fact is that we all make assumptions all the time.  We have to in order to make sense of the world.  And most of us repeatedly forget that the assumptions we are making do not necessarily have any basis in reality.

So when I say, we shouldn't allow preconceptions to rule how we think, I am not saying that we can avoid preconceptions.  But we need to understand what they are and never put our faith in them.  It may save us some embarrassment and disappointment later.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

How do you count soup?

If I handed you a pot of soup and asked you to count out 27 for me, you might ask me, "27 what, spoonfuls?"

"No," I'd answer, "27 soup."

"27 SOUP?"

"Yes, please."

"I can't do that," you'd say.  "It makes no sense."

"Okay, I see. Then give me 27 flavor units."

And at this point, you'd probably shove the pot of soup back at me and storm out. You're so easily annoyed.

But do you see the problem here?  I have a huge pot of soup. I know it is soup because I can see and taste it.  It is held in a pot, but the pot is not the soup.  It is just the vessel for the soup.  The good stuff is the soup sloshing around inside.  And I know it is there, and I know that it has flavor.  It has lots of different flavors all mixed together, actually.  And I want to count the soup flavor.

So now let's look at another problem I have.  I want to calculate how many thoughts my brain can hold and how many thoughts it can have in a second.  I know that there is such a thing as thought.  It is here in my brain.  It comes in many flavors.  They are all sloshing together and I want to count them.

Well clearly that's just going to be a dead end.  You can't count thought any more than you can count soup.  You could put some arbitrary measurement in place and count spoonfuls of soup or completed thought tasks (like pronouncing the word that appears on a screen), but you can't simply separate thought into its component parts any more than you can assign a soup a "flavor unit".

Here's an interesting problem.  Try not to think of the number 4.  Take a minute and focus on not thinking of the number 4.  I'm not saying think of something besides the number 4, I mean specifically instruct yourself to stop thinking of the number 4.  Every time the number comes into your mind, bat it away and focus on how you're not supposed to be thinking about it.

If you're anything like me, this rather confusing process starts out a little slow but gets faster.  You may be surprised by how few times you actually get to dismiss the number in a span of a few seconds.  Maybe you could do it once or twice a second or even three to four times a second it you're really into the flow.  But time ticks by amazingly fast as you focus on not thinking of the number 4.  This suggests some interesting things.

In the first place it suggests that there is a huge disconnect between conscious puzzle solving thought and the speed of synaptic firing in the brain.   Neural synapses are widely reported to be capable of 100 times a second though in practice the figure seems closer to 30 times a second.  And we know from dreaming and being scared and exercising and lots of other activities that our minds are capable of making decisions and adjustments at incredible speeds under certain circumstances.  But for good ole run of the mill puzzle level concentration, thought does not come close to approximating 100 times a second.

To get a sense of the maximum horsepower of the brain we could calculate the theoretical maximum number of synapses that could occur in a second.  Sources vary on a number of metrics, such as how many neurons we have, how many synaptic connections these cells have, and how fast exactly a neuron can fire, but one estimate I read was 100 billion neurons each with 7000 connections on average.  The number of neurons seems pretty uncontroversial, but I've seen as few as 1000 connections per neuron.  On the other hand I've seen suggestions that the fire rate of a synapse could be 200 per second.

So let's just pick a number on the low side and come up with some number that tells us at least in some small way something about the raw firepower of the brain.  A common convention seems to be to assume 100 trillion (100 million million) synaptic connections in the brain.  At a fire rate of 30 times a second, you could produce 3000 million million or 3 billion million synapses a second if your brain were ever in the unlikely state of "firing on all cylinders".   To put this impossibly large number into context we could try a couple images.

Here's a fun one.  Imagine that every person on the planet who is not already completely bald shaved his or her head and then took each hair and cut it into four pieces.  Each person places that hair into a shoe box which they hold in front of them.  Then one day at the stroke of midnight GMT, every person on the planet throws the entire contents of the box into the air, in that one instant, each piece of hair floating in the air all over the globe would represent one synaptic firing in the maxed out brain we calculated above.  400,000 pieces of hair for each of over 7 billion people.

Another one...  There are about 500 billion grains of sand on a beach volleyball court --- 8 meters wide and 16 meters long and half a meter deep.

If each grain of sand represented a synapse from our above calculation, it would take 6,000 volleyball courts worth of sand to reach the number of synapses in one second in the brain.

So we get that it's a big number.  But it is also a meaningless number in a lot of ways.  It gives us a sense of just how many synapses the brain is capable of, but it vastly overstates how many times synapses in a normal brain will fire under normal circumstances.  It is a little like seeing the speedometer labelled all the way up to 200.  It is not ever going to get there.

And of course another important consideration for our purposes is that the vast majority of synaptic firings in the brain are not devoted to the kind of thinking we are focused on.  We are not so much concerned with the "total wealth" of the brain as we are its "disposable income".  In other words, all the activity in the brain that pays the rent and keeps the lights on (keeps the heart beating and the lungs breathing, and monitors and controls all the basic body functions including response to sudden danger), is activity that is not really available for conceptual organization of data.

But for fun we can assign some tiny percentage of total brain power and assume a very low load (slow firing rate) just to see how many synapses we may associate with a thought puzzle.  Now this is all completely bogus in any literal sense, but it can be instructive nevertheless.  We have no set description of how many synapses might be required to make one symbol or token or thought, much less how many discreet thoughts it may take to solve a puzzle.  We simply don't even know how the electrochemical process in the brain translates into conceptual understanding.  But we know that it does.  This pot has soup in it, even if we don't know how it's made.

For the sake of argument, lets just assume the "4 puzzle" takes .001% of our brain's total neurons (1 in 1 million) and that the firing rate is a leisurely 10 per second. Furthermore of the 1000 possible connections each neuron can make, we will use just 10%.  We established before that it takes us maybe half a second to "not think about 4".  That would imply 50,000,000 synaptic firings.  50 million synapses to perform the puzzle.

What's the point of making blind guesses to put numbers to something that we don't even understand the underlying mechanism of?  Because it shows us just how vast the brain's capacity is.  Even using scaled down assumptions about how much brain power would be required to focus our thought for a half a second, we end up with a very large number.  We could obviously be off by several orders of magnitude.  But if our estimate is too low, that's not a problem, since what we're trying to do is get a sense for just how complex the synaptic process may be.  On the other hand, it is possible we guessed too high.  But even if we were off in two factors by a power of ten (for example only 1 in 10 million neurons is involved and they only make 1% of possible connections), we still end up with 500,000 synapses to get the single puzzle completed one time.  It makes no difference how well we have guessed at something that doesn't happen as literally as we are assuming it does anyway.  What we have shown is that no matter what the mysterious process actually is, the brain is capable of generating a great many synapses for each task.

This concept will be more meaningful when we pull it over to the hive-mind analogy and compare our results for the brain with our results for the planet if each human were a little neuron.

And that's where we're going next as we finally get to tie some of these concepts together.

No Neanderthal Mime Can Run That Fast

Okay, take a look at this.  If we look at the history of communication in human culture over the last 100,000 years, we see an obvious trend towards higher message speed and greater area of effect.  (If we call the "area of effect" the "force" of the idea, we could borrow from physics and note the speed x force = Power.  This means we could talk about the "power" of a message.  That's something worth getting back to, but I don't want to go all physicky right now.)

On some day 100,000 years ago there was some important information that needed to go around like "don't drink the water, it is bad".  I'm almost certain that at some place on the globe 100,000 years ago someone somewhere was warning someone else not to drink the water.  But even if that is not true, lets assume it is for now.  Small band of nomads putting down stakes and trying to make a go of it in farming.  Little House on the Prairie, Neanderthal Edition.  Only something pollutes the water.  Someone gets sick.  The clan genius determines it is the water.  Now if this were Neanderthal science fiction, the nerdy Neanderthal would run around warning everyone and no one would listen and the whole clan would die.   No one ever listens to the scientists in science fiction. Probably has something to do with how the nerds who write these books feel about the way society treats them.   Yeah, off topic, I know.  Look, it's my blog.  But you're right.  Neanderthal science fiction has nothing to do with communication and thinking.

And you know what, while we're on the topic of being off topic, I may as well point out that Neanderthals were probably hunter gatherers and likely didn't do much farming, northern ice age snow people that they were (although they did cook vegetables).  So the notion that Ma and Pa Neanderthal settled down to do some farming is ridiculous.  The sentence should read.  "Little House on the Prairie, Homo Sapiens Edition."  But we're all Homo Sapiens.  So that doesn't really convey the long time ago feeling I was going for.  100,000 years ago there were both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals moving about, but only the Homo Sapiens were farming.  So, no, it's not accurate.  But this isn't a science report, it's a long (and terribly off topic) exposition on the changing nature of communication.  And it only get's longer when I stop to get technical, so I'm not gonna do that.  Cuz you know what?  There was no Neanderthal science fiction either!

So the water is bad and nerdy genius Neanderthal does what?  Jumps on his blog and warns everyone? Takes out a classified ad?  Activates the emergency broadcast system? No.  He probably just tells someone.  Neanderthal language was primitive, but even in the unlikely event that it couldn't express information as basic as "water bad" he could pantomime it.

The point is he could communicate this important information, but not very efficiently.  Maybe there would be a group mime meeting at night at the fire and they could all start off with the warning about the water before practicing being blown away by imaginary wind or trampled by invisible Mastodons.  Yeah, mime was different back then.

But more than likely there were basic words for good and bad and for water and food, so "water bad" seems like a pretty easy message to sell even 100,000 years ago.

Fast forward (please) to a time when written language is in wide spread use.  The written word itself goes back to about 3000 BC.  But we're going to skip over all that and jump to a time well after the the printing press was invented and into a period when newspapers and pamphlets were being produced.  Why the huge jump?  Well this particular example relies on ways to get messages out to ordinary citizens, and so even while we could assume that someone somewhere could post a sign at the bad watering hole saying, well, "bad watering hole" we could get into some pretty crazy distractions about whether the average person could read such a sign or whether they may rely on symbols to convey what was bad or taboo and frankly it is just not that important.  What is clear is that communicating the basic safety message was time consuming yet essential.  Whatever method they may have used, it would have been local and relied on a mix of verbal and symbolic information.

So that is why we are jumping to 1770 in the good ole U.S. of... err, the colonies.

Now if we assume that some well or stream had been determined to be unhealthy we could actually imagine a public notice might be posted or at the very least a mention of the issue could take place in the local newspaper.

Now, you might think you know where this whole thing is going, but you may be a little surprised at the end.

It is clear what I am describing is that over the history of communication, messages become more efficient.  The speed of information improves as does its reach.  Where the Neanderthals had to rely on word of mouth spread one-to-one or one-to-many if they were at a fireside mime meeting, the colonists could rely on both word of mouth and the one-to-many channel of the newspaper or public bulletin.

So of course we need to take a second to look at the time involved in spreading the message via newspaper.  In a minimum of a day or two and sometimes several days longer, the information could be reported to the editor, included in the paper, and distributed to the readership.  Considering that many hundreds of people could all be warned about the same thing in this time, this is quite an improvement over Neanderthal Marcel Marceau, fake drinking, doing the international sign for choking, hopping from one foot to the other, and falling down and playing dead.

In just over 100,000 years we made some decent progress in getting the word out.

But then something happened.  It turns out that getting the word out more quickly -- that is, increasing the speed of communication -- has a drastic impact on the rate of science progress.  When scientists around the world can share ideas more quickly, the technology which is a result of that science improves more rapidly as well (to say nothing of the role of faster communication in improving education).  Technological progress has a tendency to beget more progress for a number of reasons. Not the least of these is Recursion.  But for our purposes it is interesting to look at how technological progress produced faster and more effective ways to communicate.  From the printing press, to the telegraph, then telephone, radio, television, internet.  Sure, we all know the story by now.

But recently we've entered a new phase of this progress, and this is one that is not generally appreciated in its entirety.  The telephone provided for very fast one-to-one communication, and the overseas telephone call was a social breakthrough of the 20th century, joining people separated by huge distances in a very personal way that was orders of magnitudes better than the best one-to-one alternatives that preceded it, the telegraph and the posted letter.   And radio and television took the basic model of the newspaper's one-to-many form and blew the doors off of it.  Now thousands, even millions of people could be informed from one common source in real time.

In the early days of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, Gen. Normal Schwarzkopf told a reporter in a press conference, "We're getting our information from CNN just like everyone else."  Whether that was completely accurate is beside the point.  What his comment makes clear is that communication had come a long way since our colonial newspaper warning people not to drink from Miller's Brook.  In fact, in just 225 years, realtime combat information had gone from a guy riding on horseback yelling, "The British are coming!" to millions of people all over the globe getting live reports beamed via satellite from a battlefield thousands of miles away.

100,000 years to go from some Neanderthal grunting around the fire to a one-to-many model that informed hundreds or even thousands of readers at once with a message transmission time of just a couple days.  Then in less than 250 years, we have a one-to-many mode that informs millions of people at one time with a message transmission lag measured in minutes.  How can you get faster than that?

The answer when we return.