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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Science ... Society ...

Yesterday was a good day to think about the concept of “information”, and what roles it plays in our lives. It was Lincoln’s Birthday, and my local government employer is one of the last that still gives this day off. Instead of sleeping in and enjoying a lazy day (where not much information would be required), I decided to get up early and plunge ahead with a to-do list. I was hurling myself into a state of informational need and uncertainty. For starters, I wanted to stop in on the 6:30 am quiet meditation session at my local zendo (Clear Mountain in Montclair). However, I knew that the fellow who usually opens up the place had the flu just a few days ago, and I was unsure if he would be there or if anyone else would show up.

This lack of information broke in a nice way when I arrived to find the zendo door open, a candle lit, and some of my fellow sangha members posed on their zafus in the Buddha hall. By 8am we had re-convened at the usual coffee shop. I got the usual parking spot, ordered the usual large decaf, and paid the usual price. The other people there were talking and acting in just about the same ways that I expected of them. My inner mental information state and outward reality seemed in synch once again.

My next stop was the state motor vehicle inspection station in Wayne, about 10 miles away. My car is due for the bi-annual emissions check, and it seemed like a good time to get that done. But wait a minute — if my government employer let me have the day off, then what about the State agency that runs the inspection stations? Actually, the inspection service is run by a private contractor, but you would still expect them to follow government practice regarding days off. So I checked the NJ motor vehicles web site, which lists the “official holidays” when the inspection stations are closed. Nothing for February 12, so I was convinced that the inspection station would be open all day.

I was a bit stunned when I arrived at the entrance ramp and saw a chain with a “closed today” sign. Hmm, was this a mistake? Was the entrance moved? I drove through an adjacent parking lot and saw that all the doors on the inspection building were shut. OK, this place was definitely closed. There definitely was a gap here between the information state in my brain and what existed out in the field. Later in the day, I rechecked the web site — again, the holiday list did NOT include Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12. But then on closer look, at the bottom of the page — oh, a small, separate link for “closure information”. When you click it, a message pops up: “Although Motor Vehicles Offices will be open on Feb. 12 for most business, the inspection stations will be closed in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday.”

So there was the information gap. I hadn’t taken the time to scour every little corner of the web page, and thus I missed an important “signal”. And the motor vehicle agency web-site person also didn’t expend the energy to best communicate the situation regarding Lincoln’s Birthday — he or she could have placed a note directly on the official holiday page explaining that some motor vehicle operations will be open and others (including inspection) will be closed on Feb. 12. Ah, but information has a cost — a cost in time and energy. And misinformation also cost me energy (gasoline and general auto wear-and-tear) and time.

OK, well . . . I proceeded to my next check-list point, the K-Mart store in Passaic. A few days ago I was looking on-line for a pair of flannel pajamas that seemed decent yet cheap. Again, I was trading some of my time and energy for info on the best available deal on pajamas, given that my present PJ shirt is starting to rip and probably should be replaced as to be ready for the next cold season. I saw that K-Mart was having an on-line sale on PJ’s, and didn’t charge any shipping fee if you picked them up at a local store. Hmmm, knowing the level of service at K-Mart, I was a bit uncertain whether this would work out well . . . but what the heck, I decided to plunge ahead once more into shallow informational waters.

When I got to K-Mart, I saw a small sign about on-line order pick-ups, but it seemed unclear on just where to go in the store. So I went to the front desk area where a manager woman was making calls and assisting with some customer check-outs. I got her attention and she told me that I needed to go over by the “layaway desk”, which was in an un-obvious area on the far side of the women’s clothing aisles. But then she told me to wait — she was going to try to get some information herself, regarding whether anyone was at the layaway desk. Her calls went unanswered, and she brought the subject up with another manager-like person. After some back and forth, they finally decided that she would walk me over to the layaway desk and get my PJ’s. Fine. But before we could do that, she had to get a special key from the other manager, as to open up a cabinet holding more keys. She then removed from that cabinet the key that was needed for the layaway office.

Hmmm, keys . . . what makes a key different than any other strip of metal? INFORMATION!!! Each key has the right sequence of bumps and crests to turn and activate at least one lock out there in the world somewhere. Those bumps and crests give information to that lock, telling it in effect that “I’m a friend, you can trust me and thus move the bolt over, so as to open the door”. Obviously, information is relative; the key presents good information to one lock, but to other locks it is the same as any other strip of metal. It’s information is irrelevant to most other locks out there in the universe.

Well fine, I finally get my PJ’s. I did not bother to check out whether they were the right product, given that all the hassles drove my mental energy levels downward. But when I got home, I took the PJ’s out . . . and of course, they were the wrong size. The web site offered two choices, small and medium. I selected medium. And of course, I got “grande”, large. K-Mart had an information failure in its on-line order system; likely a disjoint between the central order processing system and the local store fulfillment operation.

However, the cost of bad information in this case was not too high; no one would see me in baggy PJ’s, and while asleep or even awake under the covers, I really wouldn’t notice the loose fit. So I decided to let it slide. But I did respond to the “how did we do” survey on the confirmation e-mail from K-Mart. Perhaps this information would help them to rectify their own information problems.

On the drive home from K-Mart, I stayed too long on one of the two far-right lanes on Route 21 in Passaic; these lanes both end at local exits, whereas I wanted to continue down to Route 3 in Clifton. So I had to make a sudden lane change at the last minute, upsetting other cars in the center lane. No one had to slam on their brakes, but still . . . once again, a low information state (my not knowing that the lane would end around the curve) caused an undesired disruption.

Let’s just say that New Jersey highways are not famous for their signage; you don’t get much advance warnings of lane changes and other upcoming features. Unless you drive a road regularly (or have a really good GPS unit that knows the highway configuration), you can easily get surprised and need to choose between a quick and possibly dangerous move, or going off in the wrong direction and burning up time and energy to get back on track. New Jersey doesn’t put enough information energy into its roadways, and there is cost for this low-information state. (You could possibly say that New Jersey is “the low-information state”; it sure isn’t much of a “garden state” anymore!)

I spent the rest of the afternoon doing my federal taxes . . . with the help of the very handy Excel tax spreadsheet available on www.excel1040.com. Kudos to Mr. Reeves for updating this tool every year and offering it to the public; it definitely compacts a lot of information about tax reporting and calculation into a highly useful and relevant format. I almost got everything done, but . . . you guessed it, I had a lack of information. I have received all but one of my 1099 statements from my retirement accounts. That last one kept me from completing the project today and getting my properly arranged 2012 tax information to the IRS. (But I still know from this exercise that my tax situation will be manageable, with no surprise liabilities to the IRS).

So, what is it about “information”? It’s an abstract concept, yet we sense it so acutely in our daily lives. There are various ways that science defines “information”. Many of these concepts relate it to thermodynamic entropy, the measure of likely states of jumbled things. I.e., for jumbled things like water molecules of varying temperature in a tub, or personal items in a woman’s handbag, the most likely state is all mixed up. The less likely state is organized, e.g. hot water on one side, cold water on the other; or all lipstick and makeup in one corner, cash and coins in another corner, papers and business cards off together at a third side. You would think that the organized states are akin to ‘high information’, as they require energy to attain and maintain.

But no, according to “Shannon information“, the more jumbled states of things (high entropy) contain more information. Think of a high school yearbook that was designed for 200 students; but, say for some reason, there were really only 5 students. So, to fill up the other 195 slots, they just kept on repeating the 5 students until there were 200 total student descriptions. This would be very orderly, with the same pattern repeating itself 20 times. But it wouldn’t say much, compared to different pictures and stories about 200 different kids. The latter would seem more jumbled, but it would tell a much more interesting tale. With physical systems, we use energy to organize things into patterns and thus fight disorder. But with information, we use energy to buy more “specialness” and thus more disorder. Nonetheless, informational disorder still seems disorderly — thus the saying “the more you know, the less you know”. The more complex the world becomes, the harder it is to fit it into established patterns.

Another scientific application of the information concept involves the nature of human consciousness. Currently, the hottest, most talked-about theory regarding what consciousness is has been proffered by Prof. Giulio Tononi. In a nutshell, Prof. Tononi says that consciousness is had when a sufficient level of “integrated information” occurs in the brain. He calls this the “phi” factor. In other words, it’s not just that information is flowing in from your sensory organs; it’s that your brain somehow relates each individual sensory signal with most every other signal, when it processes this information as to decide what to do next and what to remember for the future. According to Tononi, the high level of informational cross-referencing is a sure sign that conscious awareness is in the mix. Arguably, a machine can be trained in the future to achieve such a state and become . . . get ready for Skynet . . . conscious!

And then there are the ‘digital physics‘ scientists who make bold statements that the universe is really a big computer program running in the night, that we really are in some sort of “Matrix”; thus, information is the true grounding of reality, and energy and matter are peripheral to it. I.e., “digital physics is a collection of theoretical perspectives based on the premise that the universe is, at heart, describable by information, and is therefore computable. Therefore, the universe can be conceived of as either the output of a computer program, a vast, digital computation device”. This seems to complete the thought that arises from Tononi’s “phi” explanation of consciousness. I.e., that information is the true bedrock of reality.

(To be continued.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:35 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m not sure I have too much to say here as I guess I’m waiting for the “to be continued” part.

    I *do* know that I really do not agree with the “science has all the answers” approach to consciousness as I think that science is out of its element when it talks about consciousness. I can see what science is *in* its element when it talks about the brain and how the brain works; I would not disagree that consciousness needs the brain, while it is in this body, to “work” through the body. But it is clear to me (from experiences I had when doctors swore I was “in a coma” and could not possibly been conscious) that the conscious part of us is “another whole ball of wax”. I think there are many others who have had similar experiences to mine (and even some even more deep and profound) that would completely agree with me.

    It *is* obvious from science (e.g., such diseases as Alzheimer’s and other such kinds of dementia) that the body on earth absolutely needs the brain to function through the body; but it is not clear from science that consciousness cannot exist without the body/brain.

    So, I guess the best thing here is to wait for the “to be continued” part of this discussion. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 15, 2013 @ 12:06 am

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