Category Archives: Information Metaphysics

Objects vs Functions

I learned to ‘programme computers’ long ago, almost before there was no “me” in ‘program’ and certainly before I knew how to ‘team’. I had a very brief and unsuccessful exposure to functional programming in LISP (not Lisp) then stopped. I did other ‘Data Processing’ things.

In recent years I’ve been working as an analyst, alongside people who write code according to the object model. I think I have a feel for objects but never having written code in an object-oriented language, I can’t be sure. I decided to try, in the Python language, then got distracted by the shiny Clojure language which is functional. I feel that right now I’m approximately equally confused by objects and functions, so I thought I’d write this quickly before I know what I’m talking about. I can come back later to laugh at my naivety, along with the rest of you.

Like the person who wrote this ,
I’ve been watching some talks online recently by Rich Hickey of Clojure fame”
The post asks “So if I follow Hickey’s advice, how am I supposed to represent a book? As a vector of vectors of vectors of vectors of strings? If so, then how do I prevent a change in the representation of the Book from breaking client code?”

I found the question very interesting because representing ‘books’ in a functional language is exactly what I want to do. I think differently to the author because  I’m not yet trapped inside the object paradigm. I can see that ‘book’ is a real-world class of objects, a very specific and limited implementation of the representation of a small subset of all the information in the world. That’s what my ‘book’ was going to be about and why I’m now playing with functions instead of writing it.

Objects are good at simulation of real life systems. They encapsulate small sub-systems of a process and it’s local data into an object. What I always struggled to understand was what you did with the data that didn’t want to be enclosed – “information wants to be free”. People seem to cope by inventing objects that don’t really exist: to be data shepherds.

Functions are good at abstraction. A book is a single output format from something much richer. That’s what I want to write. Data and processes are complex. Objects and functions are simplifying models; there may be others.

p.s. (not Lisp) Get it?

What is Art?

I wanted to set up some thought experiments for my ‘book’ on information metaphysics. I think I’ll need a metaphysical model as a starting point. It probably ought to be a software model. I started with imaginary lumps representing science, politics and religion, all of which I’ve been comparing and contrasting recently, then I realised I’d left out information. As I sketched, I realised that I’d also missed art. What is art?

I think that art observes, interprets, asks questions, reacts then reflects back. Doing that may require craft skills. Do you agree?
Why do we “sketch out an idea”?  Am I “blogging out” now or am I un-secretly blogging in?

Lost, in Another Dimension

“There are 2 types of people: those who believe the world can be divided into 2 types people and those who don’t”, say the ancient texts – and then there’s me.

Do you remember when politics used to be about Left and Right?
The taught us that there was another dimension, running from Authoritarian to Libertarian. These scales are non-binary.

My adventures in interwingularity have taught me that, for every way a data set can be divided, along an axis between 2 extremes, there may be another axis that you haven’t thought of yet.

I used to provide support of information systems to an energy trading floor. On a team-building  course I learned that trading floors are split into 2 types of people:

  • Traders, obviously, who have large appetites for the risk which brings highest profits and run on emotion and gut feel, lightly supported by a platform of market knowledge
  • Analysts, who are risk averse, cross-check everything from independent sources and always want more data before they make a decision

Any successful trading operation probably depends on the correct tension, and consequential personal stress, between these 2 groups of people and they drive one another crazy. In the middle is a regulatory department, making decisions about the analysts’ concerns about the traders’ latest wild scheme that may destroy the organisation. When not even ‘Regulatory’ can break a dead-lock, it has to go to executive level, for a final decision.

I can see no reason why a political party with a deep belief in market economical principles would be any different, ‘and so, to Brexit’: leaving the EU was dangerous but potentially highly lucrative for the Conservative Party’s key supporters. Party MPs are spread along the axis between safety and danger. The Brexiteers sold a dream but had no plan. The Remains’ plan was to do nothing, but lacked the marketing skills to make inaction sound attractive. They had lots of data, graphs even, on why Leave wouldn’t work but no-one planning to vote ‘Leave’ was inclined to listen. They’d bought the dream from the salesmen in the sharpest suits and scatter plots weren’t really their thing. The cautious, analytical half of the electorate heeded the warnings but they were still pushed off the cliff by the over-excited lemmings who didn’t give a damn what any ‘so-called experts’ thought. Those MPs with a natural tendency to regulate excesses and the executive who would normally have been limitting their ambition were on the team not risking The Really Dangerous Thing.

I now work as an Agile Business Analyst and I am currently available for hire.
I offer special rates for political parties. Market forces may apply.


Talking Trees

I ‘done a speak’ at Ignite Brum recently.

I have a rational fear of public speaking to large audiences. I decided to face it. At ‘Staffs Web Meetup’ I gave a fairly techie 10(/20) minute talk about Ted Nelson’s concept of intertwingularity. When I saw a plea on for speakers at Ignite Brum to replace others who had dropped out, I imagined my usual cluster of geeks in the upstairs room of a pub, not the lights/action/movie comedy glamour of the stage at The Glee Club. I’m all for a bit of clubbing but I was well outside my comfort zone.

‘All I had to do’ was reduce my talk by 75%, simplify by about the same, for a general audience and produce exactly 20 slides that would auto-advance every 15 seconds. It was described by someone on the night as “Powerpoint as an extreme sport”. That was a true story. I recommend the challenge as an exercise for the reader. It is hard work in preparation and frantic in execution but it doesn’t give you much time to panic about the faces looking up at you; anyway, you’re blinded by the spotlights.

Watch as I drop behind the pace set by the projector. My best joke and some local politics was lost in the bunching on the corners but I present ‘Everything is Deeply Intertwingled (Smash the Hierarchy!)’

Thanks to @iamsteadman for allowing me to try this and making the video available (I’d never have agreed if I’d known that,) the other speakers and the people who made us all feel welcome: @probablydrunk, @carolinebeavon, @grunt121 and the audience.

The Value of Work

Do you ever simply put real life ‘on hold’ while you think about the meaning of a word? I do it frequently. This time it was “work”.

I haven’t been going ‘to work’ for the last couple of years. You might argue that when I am writing, I am “Working At Home” and that if I ever have a book published, I’ll be paid for that work. What if I don’t? Does it stop having been work then? Obviously not, because people volunteer to do ‘voluntary work’, just as I am writing this blog post with no realistic hope of financial reward. I’m doing it because there is an idea in my head that I want to put in other people’s heads. They might like it.

I thought I wanted to write. I was surprised to discover that I wanted to think. I’ve been paid to think for years – but to think about what They told me to. It had become increasingly difficult to be interested in some of their boring, self-inflicted problems. I wanted to explore my own ideas.

Perhaps work is when you do something you hope someone else will value, even if you aren’t sure?

Talking to People IRL

I don’t know what I was thinking, but a few months ago I VOLUNTEERED to give a talk; in a room, with an audience of 50 people, all looking at my face. In theory, that should be fine. Put someone else in the metaphorical spot-light and I’ll happily ask them questions or debate with them about what they’ve said. I run workshops with a simple structure and a lot of ‘make it up on the fly’ in my work as a business analyst. I can do that, so I know that my dislike for ‘making presentations’ is completely irrational. Sadly, that doesn’t help.

Last Thursday, I faced my fear in the friendly environment of Web Staffordshire Meetup. I had my slides about ‘Fixing Intertwingularity’ to flick through, printed notes made of mind-maps, with a few red scribbles on them to guide me, based on my timed practice runs at home. I knew that if I stuck to the script, I could fit the content into my 15 minute slot, with a minute to spare.

I wasn’t nervous before I went up. When I was introduced, my ‘spontaneous’ quip about it being “a big crowd for a philosophy gig” went down well. I’m not sure what happened to the second half of that joke, or indeed to about a third of the first page of notes, carefully crafted to set my book as the context of where the weird ideas came from. I’d decided on a character I was going to play, to give myself a virtual cloak to hide in. He was running for the door at this point. From there on, I stuck to the script. Apart from stumbling over a few words I’d normally be fine with, and not being able to read some of my notes, I don’t think the rest sucked too badly.

I think I understand the problem now – it’s trying to do All The Things at once. I’ve already had the ideas and built a framework to constrain my words to a path heading in the right direction but with the added adrenalin, new words arrive uninvited when there’s nowhere to fit them in. I need to act as doorman to interruptions from my subconscious, deliver the talk, keep my place, look ahead to what’s coming next, make eye contact with the audience and remember when to change to the next slide. I can’t do that. I also need to not deliver a live commentary on what is going wrong.

Afterwards, I had some great chats with people who had found the subject “thought provoking” and I think I presented other ideas more lucidly. Maybe I need a shorter path with more gaps in the fence, so I can run free. I’ve put my career as a standup comedian on hold for now.


Loose-Leaf Thinkmanship

Armed with the knowledge that I have foolishly volunteered to give a talk about Intertwingularity to the good people of ‘Web Staffordshire’, which needs to be condensed into a 10 minute slot in serialised space-time, I thought I’d start work 2 weeks earlier than normal. Being brief takes longer.

I read a sentence, “Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial” in my notes, for the nth time, where n is not an especially small number. Gutenberg, printing, books? Why hadn’t I noticed this before? (I can answer that: I was thinking about what information ‘sequence’ is last night. I had to do that before I could see this. The order in which ideas are presented matters a great deal. I had nowhere to hang the new idea until I had constructed the hook labelled “sequence/serialise/order/sort”.)

My mental model of books has previously been pseudo-infinite rolls of paper, like long web pages, chopped up at appropriate page boundaries to fit between book bindings, but I should have KNOWN that isn’t right. Shakespeare’s ‘Folio’ was a collection of earlier, shorter documents. Medieval scribes wrote important works on vellum and calves don’t come in ‘Size Infinite’. I have never held a real scroll. I don’t know how to operate one.

Was there an index in the jars which contained the Dead Sea Scrolls? Has Mr. ‘hypertext’ Nelson been telling me all along that hierarchy came in with the printing press, as a way to manage text ‘at scale’, like an army, and I’ve been ignoring him? Imagine these fixed-leaf binders defining and thereby constraining ‘correct-sequence’ of text-chunks that were once free to wander?

The Information thing

Most of computer science is built on top of Claude Shannon’s “Information Theory”. Observers have noted that ‘computer science’ has very little to do with computers. I have come to think of it as ‘computation and information science’. I might throw in the word “process” to bind everything together, if I could work out where to put it. For a long time I was ready to dismiss the word “science” but I have recently changed my mind.

In the book I’m writing, I plan to point out that Shannon explicitly says in his paper that he and his theory don’t care about the meaning of any signal being transmitted. It could be meaningless. To my mind that is data not information. Our foundations are shaky.

There is a long tradition of drawing a triangle with layers labelled ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. Here is one:
I am trying to develop my own model that adds layers and explains the difference between them. My working definition of the difference between data and information is that information requires a cultural context to be understood. I tried to think of the simplest information I’d ever seen. It was 3 sticks laid down on a forest path, to make an arrow shape (or they fell randomly from a tree. Here, Shannon has something useful to say.) I realised that interpreting this arrow requires a knowledge of human weapons technology. Recognising whether an arrow symbol on a path is a message also requires environmental, cultural and statistical knowledge.

I only came up with my distinction between information and knowledge a few days ago, so I’ll keep testing my hypothesis until the book comes out. I will say that I don’t believe you can store knowledge in a computer system. Oh dear, someone else beat me to the ‘wisdom layer’:

1-D Upon a Time-line

Warning: Choking danger – may contain small pieces of Physics.

I think most people have difficulty visualising any world with more than three dimensions. I’ve always struggled to think about 1-D.

A football has three dimensions. You can kick it somewhere else, a short time later. A flat piece of paper has two dimensions and a straight line has one, I was told. “Later”, “flat” and “straight” are clearly references to particular ‘higher’ dimensions. Draw a straight line on a flat piece of paper and roll it up then throw it and I have a line in four dimensional space-time. ‘Lower’ dimensions refer to, perhaps are defined by, constraints in ‘higher’ dimensions. As we are not yet capable of switching off time, I’m not convinced the human mind has the necessary hardware to experience one dimension.

I’ve always known intuitively that 1-D was very difficult to isolate. A line is the path an imaginary point might take over time if it was banned from the second and third dimensions, or indeed if we just ignored any movement through those two dimensions. If the line on the piece of paper had instead been an optic fibre on a roll, the light passing down it could still be considered to be in our conventional understanding of one dimension (plus time.) The only way it is possible to observe 1-D would be as a point at a moment in time, though it would have to be an infinitely small light source. We can imagine a set of such points at exactly the same moment in time. Such a line could never be observed by a human. I’d normally blame Heisenberg but I think the ‘infinitely small in all but 1 dimension’ thing has given him a lucky break this time.

I returned to this subject after reading James Gleick’s description in his book ‘The Information’ of Richard Dawkins’ thoughts in ‘The Selfish Gene’ that although we are all familiar with the 3-D double-helix structure of DNA, the information it contains is effectively a bit-stream, like the light in our fibre. If we watch a single firefly, flashing against a jet black night, we are observing the output of the one-upon-a-time dimension. That may be as close as we can get.

1-D is hard for the same reason as 5-D; we have never seen it. We now have the technical capability to construct virtual worlds in more than 3(+Time) Dimensions but we humans don’t have the sensory input equipment necessary to observe them all at once. We may need to take our brains to another dimension, as predicted by ‘The Prodigy’, and Max Romeo before them.

It is left as an exercise for the reader to estimate the size of a bit.

Remoting-in to the Virtual Box

As no-one spoke up yesterday, I’ll assume everyone has accepted the notion that all software runs in a virtual universe, free from the laws of physics. That’s why we don’t need to run software developments like an engineering project. They are not subject to all of the constraints that make engineering hard. We can ‘build the roof first’ and worry about ‘how strong the foundations need to be’ later, when we understand more about the model we have built of our incomplete idea. Like this blog post, Agile products are almost free-floating in a world of our invention, until they need to communicate with people. We are stuck here, interacting with this parallel universe, using our big, heavy ape arms and clumsy interfaces. We drag behind them like tired children.

Did you see the original ‘Tron’ film? Do you remember how the programmers’ personalities were represented by the programs? That was a true story. Programs can be gentle, kind, beautiful but shallow, or bullying ego-maniacs, just like their creators. They can appear to have a certain character while actually being something else entirely. Software reflects aspects of the personalities of it’s creators, as expressed within their self-imposed cultural boundaries.

I think most people reading this will accept that evolution theory is most likely true and that genes carry the necessary code to make new life. I want to propose my own hypothesis. I don’t know if I’ve re-invented an old idea so please tell me if you’ve heard of it before. I think that every form of life has its own culture and that DNA and culture have evolved together in a symbiotic relationships, like a third interlocked spiral. The main difference is the speed at which the invisible cultural strand can change. We may still have the emotional responses of cave dwellers due to our DNA but we can change our political and religious opinions in a day. Every system that survives, protects itself, so we have evolved early-adopters, fashion-victims, people who want to fit in and reactionaries, to quality-check dangerous ideas. As a species we resists change, because change has proved to be really dangerous. At the same time, we constantly strive to try something new because that has been proved to give evolutionary advantage, if you don’t die trying. The variation in the attitude of humans is one of our evolutionary advantages. The two are kept in balance by death of the over adventurous and economic failure of the over-cautious.

“Where’s he going with this?”, you may ask. Well: just as Richard Dawkins put forward the idea that we are carriers of our selfish genes, I’m in turn proposing the idea that selfish us and our selfish genes are carriers of our cultures and that if we can project human culture into software, we can free it, and ourselves from the rules of physics and the constraints of limited resources and thereby, finally, from the drive to be selfish.