Archive for July, 2007

From a Continuous Stream of Incomprehensible Noise to Recognizable Words and Patterns

July 31, 2007

“When you are in a foreign country and do not yet know the language, it just seems to be a continuous stream of incomprehensible noise.  As you get to know the language it starts to break up into recognizable sounds, and then into recognizable words and phrases.  Now you cannot, no matter how hard you try, go back to hearing it as a continuous sound.  It will always to divided into separate words.  This is the way the memory-surface deals with the incomprehensible picture that is presented  to it by its surroundings.  As soon as some patterns start to be recognized they form the focus for an attention  area.  The continuous picture is now broken up into these attention areas which become more and more definite.  This is the pattern extracting process which is a natural property of the memory-surface.”

— The Mechanism of Mind by Edward de Bono

Life without “E”

July 30, 2007

“In counting the frequency of usage of the letter E in all English prose we will find that E constitutes 13% of all letters appearing, while W, for instance, constitutes only about 2% of all letters appearing.”

“In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published a 267-page novel, Gadsby, in which no use is made of the letter E.  I quote from a paragraph below:

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion: a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as a fly is to a sugar bowl.  It is a story about a small town.  It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary ‘fill-ins’ as ‘romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.’  Nor will it say anything about twinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any ‘warm glow of lamplight’ from a cabin window.  No.  It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that wornout notion that a ‘child don’t know anything.'”

– An Introduction to Information Theory by John R. Pierce

Great Book = Interesting Information + Arguments

July 29, 2007

What is the longest argument you’ve ever made? What is the longest argument you’ve ever read?

By an “argument” I mean: collect together some information nuggets, show how they are related, and then draw a logical conclusion from them.

Most of the (engineering) books I read are oriented toward providing information and techniques, not toward forming arguments.

Recently, however, I have been reading two outstanding books:

— Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

— Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred Whitehead

And through careful reading I have become aware of the arguments being made in these books.  I say “careful reading” because their arguments aren’t immediately obvious, at least not to me.

After reading a page I pause and reflect on the ideas presented.  Slowly I am seeing how the arguments are being constructed.

In Smith’s book the arguments are well contained; at the end of each chapter he ties together the various parts of the argument.  Whitehead’s arguments are more complex and subtle; they can span multiple chapters.

Whitehead’s book is on mathematics.  It occurred to me, “Why are there arguments in a book on mathematics?  Shouldn’t it just contain information and techniques, like my engineering books?”  I’ve been puzzling over why I like Whitehead’s book so very much, particularly since I am not especially interested in mathematics. Now I think I know why: because it contains both information and arguments.

The realization that I have come to is that I like books which contain both interesting information as well as arguments.

Whitehead was both a mathematician and a philosopher.  Smith was both an economist and a philosopher.

A philosopher is a master of arguments.

I think great books are those that contain interesting information and are also philosophical (i.e. contain arguments).

In our sound bite society we don’t see many long, elaborate, elegant arguments.  That’s a shame.

Purpose of Science

July 28, 2007

“The purpose of science is not to make predictions, but to explain things — predictions are then tests of whether explanations are correct.”  [Herbert Simon]

“I will use a simple example to illustrate Simon’s point.  One could propose a theory that would explain that the sky is blue by assuming the existence of giants who paint it blue every night while we are sleeping.  Simon would argue that one can’t just test the correctness of the conclusion. Rather, to accept such a theory, one would also have to observe the giants in action.  As the economic philosopher Daniel Hausman has put it, one must “look under the hood” of a theory to see that the causal chain of explanations is valid as well.”  [Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker]

Example of Limited Government

July 27, 2007

 As of 1997 …

In today’s world big government seems pervasive.  We may well ask whether there exist any contemporary examples of societies that rely primarily on voluntary exchange through the market and in which government is limited.

Perhaps the best example is Hong Kong.  It is less than 400 square miles in size with a population of roughly 4.5 million people.  The density of population is almost unbelievable — 14 times as many people per square mile as Japan, 185 times as many as in the United States.  Yet they enjoy one of the highest standards of living in all of Asia — second only to Japan and perhaps Singapore.

Hong Kong has no tariffs or other restraints on international trade.  It has no government direction of economic activity, no minimum wage laws, no fixing of prices.  The residents are free to buy from whom they want, sell to whom they want, to invest however they want, to hire whom they want, to work for whom they want.

The role of government is limited.  It enforces law and order, provides a means for formulating the rules of conduct, adjudicates disputes, facilitates transportation and communication, and supervises the issuance of currency.

Government spending remains the lowest in the world as a fraction of the income of the people.  As a result, low taxes preserve incentives.  Businessmen reap the benefits of their success but also bear the costs of their mistakes.

— Free to Choose by  Milton Friedman

Cooperate versus Free-Ride … The Public-Goods Game

July 26, 2007

The Public-Goods Game

Four people play the game.  Each is given 20 tokens, and the game has four rounds.  On each round a player can either contribute tokens into the public pot or keep them for himself.

If a player invests  a token, it costs him money.  He invests one token, and he personally earns only 0.4 tokens.  But every other member in the group gets 0.4 tokens too.  So the group as a whole gets 1.6 tokens for every one that’s invested.

When individuals contribute into the public pot, the whole group becomes richer, beyond the tokens contributed.


If everyone were to contribute all their tokens (20 * 4 = 80) then the whole group would be greatly enriched (80 * 1.6 = 128).  Each individual would have a wealth of 32 (128 / 4 = 32).

If everyone were to keep their  tokens and contribute nothing into the public pot then they each would have a wealth of 20.

If one person were to contribute nothing, and all others were to contribute all their token into the public pot then the “free-rider” would have a wealth of 44, the others a wealth of 24.

There is a strong incentive to let everyone else contribute so that I can reap the benefits of their investments.

Observed Behavior

This game has been played around the world.  Most people do not act selfishly at first.  During the first round most people contribute about half their tokens to the public pot.  But as each round passes, and people see others free riding, the rate of contribution drops.  By the last round 70-80% of the players are free riding, and the group as a whole is poorer than it would otherwise.

Types Of Players

It has been observed that players fall into three general categories:

1. 25% are selfish and free ride.

2. A small minority are altruists, who contribute heavily to the public pot from the get-go and continue to do so even as others ride free.

3. The biggest group are the “conditional consenters”. They start out contributing some of their wealth, but watching others free ride makes them far less likely to keep putting money in it.  By the last round almost all the conditional consenters are no longer cooperating.

— Wisdom of Crowds by James Suroweicki

Knowledge Yields “Increasing Returns”

July 25, 2007

The more you invest in increasing your knowledge, the more you get in return.

Learn a little, become a little more productive, get a few job opportunities.  Learn a lot, become lots more productive, get lots of job opportunities.

Knowledge has a cumulative, accelerating quality to it.

Contrast with most production processes, which exhibit the opposite quality of decreasing returns.  For most type of production processes, whether it is farming, manufacturing, or services, as one invests more and more resources, the marginal returns get smaller and smaller.

— Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker

Clockwork Universe

July 24, 2007

In the late fourteenth century an influential French popularizer of science, Bishop Nicole d’Oresme (1330-1382), created the unforgettable metaphor: a clockwork universe, God the perfect clockmaker!

That is, things kept moving because of forces originally imprinted on them that simply continued to operate.

The clock was the master metaphor of the universe.

The clock is the mother of machines.

Even after the clock ceased to be the master metaphor of the universe, it became more than ever master of daily life on this planet.

— The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin

Is Time Finite or Infinite? Time Before the Big Bang?

July 23, 2007

An examination of the most carefully written scientific treatments of the astronomical evidence, and of the cosmological theory which appears to fit the evidence, will discover that the big bang theory does not posit an absolute beginning of the cosmos — a coming into existence out of nothing — but only an initial event in the development of the cosmos as we now know it, an event that occurred at a time that is estimated as between fifteen and twenty billion years ago.

Our present techniques of observation and measurement, and the technical facilities they employ, do not permit us to penetrate the past beyond the time, some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, when the big bang occurred.

What is being said here is not that past time is limited (finite rather than infinite), but only that our knowledge of past time is limited — limited to a time beyond which our observations and measurements cannot go. Time may extend back infinitely beyond that initial explosion of matter, out of which the present shape of the cosmos has developed, but unless some radical alteration in our techniques and instruments of observation and measurements occurs, we will never be able to penetrate the veil that hides the infinite past from us.

— Mortimer J. Adler

Measuring Time

July 22, 2007

Time is defined by reference to astronomical phenomena. Astronomical recurrences mark out equal intervals of time:

– a year is defined as one trip of the earth around the sun

– a day is defined as one rotation of the earth

Relegation of the determination of the measure of time to the astronomer arises from the consistency[1] of the recurrences with which they deal. If such consistency had been noted among the recurrences characteristic of the human body, we would have looked to the doctors of medicine to determine the measure of time[2].

[1] Example of a “consistent” recurrence: the number of days it takes for the earth to orbit the sun is 365.25 days, year after year … the recurrences are consistent. For all ordinary purposes of life on earth, the various astronomical recurrences may be looked on as absolutely consistent.

[2] The heart beat is periodic, but not consistent; it beats quickly when we are active, slower when we are resting; such inconsistent recurrences would not be useful for measuring time.

— Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics

Question: how is “hour” measured? Is there an astronomical recurrence that indicates an hour? An hour is one twenty-fourth of a day, of course, but how did the ancients realize that one twenty-fourth of a day has elapsed?