The River

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ambiguous Absolutes Lead To Absolute Ambiguity: Information Theory and The Organic Model

> a guest post -- and work in progress -- by Rick Pietz, formerly known as the author of Radically Inept


This work is an initial effort to synthesize the ideas found and/or formed over ten or more years of active research into various aspects of information theory, and to present these ideas in a readable, understandable, and hopefully useful manner. A part of me, and I would suggest that it would be my ego, would like for this work to be lauded by the most influential critics of our time, and to have terms such as genius and original thrown my way. However, in truth, this is just a translation of the great ideas of others into one that will hopefully resonate with today’s readers. Alas, I’ll be happy if a few readers find the writing interesting, and someone finds the metaphors and analogies helpful in expanding their world view.

A brief aside: I was recently out west on business, when a coworker and I got into a conversation with some strangers at the hotel bar; which ultimately led to a discussion of the inaccuracies inherent in the use of symbols to communicate ideas. For instance, if I use a noun like chair, desk, tree or car in a sentence, the listener’s visualization of the chair, desk, tree or car might lead to miscommunication. If I’m asking you to design furniture, and I am speaking of lounge chairs, and your mental visualization is that of office chairs – this discrepancy may or may not cause a problem. The gentleman I was speaking with pointed out that there could well be incidences where errors in the communication – brought on by reliance in symbols – might actually produce positive, innovative results. Office lounge chairs, perhaps? So, what is the potential positive values that can come from having to rely on symbols to communicate – sort of like, increased productivity as a result of degraded communications?

Then, while returning to my hotel room, I saw a bellboy wearing a vest that reminded me a lot of an Escher drawing. When I commented on it, he stated he really would have liked one “of the hand drawing itself”. That stunned me. I had always considered that drawing much as described here, “…also include Drawing Hands, a work in which two hands are shown, each drawing the other;…”. I had never made the leap to the idea that it was one hand drawing itself. This bellboy’s remark (this is not a denigration based on job title), in a hotel elevator, allowed me to radically alter my perception of a piece of art, and proves to me yet again, that insight can be found in some of the most seemingly trivial exchanges. In fact, I will spend time in the future contemplating these exchanges to see how these ideas might contribute to changing my own world view – as I stated above, this is a work in progress.

Back to the main thread.

One of the challenges that has prevented me from trying to communicate my latest concept of ‘life, the universe and everything’, is where to start. Now, I think I have found a new and unique starting point for exploration: the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish. The linked article states that at this time there has been no research done to test whether this is instinctive or learned behaviour – which, luckily, leaves me lots of room for wild speculation, anthropomorphisms, and conjecture.

So, work with me here, and let me create a fable.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, at the bottom of the Red Sea, there lived a grouper named Gary. Gary the Grouper was happiest when eating, which meant he spent a lot of time hunting for smaller fish. Sometimes, when he was chasing a fish, the fish would swim for the nearby coral reef and hide in one of the holes where Gary the Grouper was too big to fit. Sometimes when this happened, Eddie the Eel (Gary didn’t know his name was Eddie) would see Gary the Grouper (Eddie didn’t know his name was Gary) chasing a fish, and being a hungry eel, he would try to get the fish before Gary the Grouper could. And, if the fish swam into one of the crevices, Eddie the Eel could get in and a lot of the times, catch the fish.

Gary the Grouper didn’t like it when Eddie the Eel would do this, and tried to keep Eddie the Eel away from ‘his’ fish. This went on for some time. Gary the Grouper would chase a fish; the fish would very often swim and hide in the crevices amoungst the coral. Sometimes Gary the Grouper could keep Eddie the Eel away from the crevice where the fish was hiding. When this happened, the fish would stay in hiding until Gary the Grouper would give up and go hunting for another fish.

Other times, when Eddie the Eel got past Gary the Grouper, and was able to chase the fish into the crevice, one of three things would happen: 1) Eddie the Eel would catch and eat the fish, and Gary the Grouper would go hungry; 2) other times, Eddie the Eel would chase the fish out of the crevice right into Gary the Grouper’s path, and Gary the Grouper would catch and eat the fish, and 3) the fish would get into a crevice too small for Eddie the Eel, or escape by a ‘secret passage’, and both Gary the Grouper and Eddie the Eel would go hungry. This went on for some time.

Now, Gary the Grouper had never studied comparative economics, statistics, Game Theory or even basic competitive theory, so he had to work out the relationships between himself (Gary the Grouper), Eddie the Eel and the fish without the help of higher education. It took him a while, but one day it dawned on him – even using the simple calculus that he know – that when he chased a fish into a crevice, if Eddie the Eel wasn’t there to go after the fish, the fish could out wait him, and so he would lose the fish. On the other hand, when Eddie the Eel chased the fish into the crevice, Gary the Grouper would catch an escaping fish almost half the time.

Gary the Grouper thought about this for a long time – if he was alone when the fish made it to the crevice, he never caught that fish, but if Eddie the Eel came along, he got the fish almost half the time. Now Gary the Grouper didn’t know about Chi-Square tables and Pareto optimality, but it didn’t take much longer until he figured out it was a good thing to have Eddie the Eel around when the fish got into a crevice. At least his chances of catching the fish went from zero to almost one-in-two.

One day, Gary the Grouper was real hungry, and he chased a fish into a crevice. Gary realized that he would have no chance at the fish if Eddie the Eel didn’t go into the crevice after the fish. That’s when Gary saw Eddie the Eel hiding in his very own crevice. Gary knew that his best chance to eat the hiding fish was to get Eddie to go into the crevice. So Gary, thinking it through, started to make a big deal about the fish hiding in the crevice – Gary began scraping the sides of the crevice, like he was trying to make it bigger. This caught Eddie the Eel’s attention.

Eddie the Eel had even less education than Gary the Grouper, but he wasn’t dumb. Eddie the began thinking that the only time he’d see Gary the Grouper hanging around the reef, was when Gary had chased a fish into a crevice. So, if Gary the Grouper was making such a commotion at the reef, Gary probably had a fish cornered in the crevice. Now, Eddie knew that in the past when he went to a crevice that Gary was guarding, about half the time he would catch the fish and eat. The other half of the time, Gary the Grouper would get the fish. But, on the other hand, it saved Eddie a lot of time hunting for his own fish, if he knew that Gary had one cornered. So, Eddie the Eel swam over to where Gary was, and went right past him into the hole, but the fish swam out and Gary the Grouper caught and ate him. But the next time it happened, Eddie the Eel caught the fish and ate him.

Well from then on, when Gary the Grouper cornered a fish in crevice where he couldn’t get it, he would go get Eddie the Eel to help flush the fish out. It worked out well for both of them, but they never really became close friends, or even went out for drinks together.

Oh, the point of the fable? Well it might demonstrate that given enough time, an economic/ecological system will often find comparatively complex system of interaction to achieve a balance of cost and profits; or perhaps that there exists an inherent evolutionary/survival advantage in cooperation over time. Or maybe even, that we underestimate the cognitive abilities of the other species that we share the globe with. Or perhaps it’s not a point per se, but rather the start of a quest to look into the value of symbiotic relationships arising in mutual competition. Boiled down, it seems to point to the advantages for competitors to cooperate for mutual advantage, while increasing the disadvantage to the prey – call it the forerunner of the modern airline business model.

Oh, it could also be used a further evidence that every would-be author thinks they have at least one children’s story in them…

I would like to acknowledge that the comments by Rick Perez on "Ambiguous Absolutes Lead To Absolute Ambiguity: Information Theory and The Organic Model" was an incredibly skilled piece journalistic prose. Keep up the brilliant work,

regards, Kirk
Kirk, thank you for your kind words.

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