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...

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