Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Memory, Like All Information, Needs Filters

I didn't review it here, just had a couple of quick references, but I thought it was very interesting to run across a very similar statement in the book from yesterday's post to one in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. The comparison is interesting because The Information includes an exploration into the development of writing and recording information as absolutely important to the way we think and how we understand the world today. It's one long progress of improving evolution. Moonwalking with Einstein, on the other hand, explores the history of books and recorded information as an erosion of memory and a detriment to our ability to think.


First, a section from Moonwalking with Einstein:

One might assume that S's vacuum-cleaner memory would have made him a formidable journalist. I imagined if I could only take notes without taking notes and have at my fingertips every fact I'd ever digested, I'd be immensely better at my job. I'd be better at everything.

But professionally S was a failure. His newspaper gig didn't last long, and he was never able to hold down a steady job. He was, in Luria's estimation, "a somewhat anchorless person, living with the expectation that at any moment something particularly fine was to come his way." Ultimately, his condition made him unemployable as anything but a stage performer, a theatrical curio like the mnemonist of Alfred Hitchcock's
The 39 Steps. The man with the best memory in the world simply remembered too much.

In his short story "Funes the Memorious," Jorge Luis Borges describes a fictional version of S, a man with an infallible memory who is crippled by an inability to forget. He can't distinguish between the trivial and the important. Borges's character Funes can't prioritize, can't generalize. He is "virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas." Like S, his memory was too good. Perhaps, as Borges concludes in his story, it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. To make sense of the world, we must filter it. "To think," Borges writes, "is to forget."


Next, a section from my review of The Information:

This is a quote I found interesting from the last chapter, 15, “New News Every Day,” in reference to the idea of information overload: Having to think of information as a burden is confusing, as Charles Bennett says. "We pay to have newspapers delivered, not taken away.” But the thermodynamics of computation shows that yesterday’s newspaper takes up space that Maxwell’s demon needs for today’s work, and modern experience teaches the same. Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering.

We have a greater understanding of what he means because of what has come before. Maxwell’s demon is first briefly mentioned in chapter 8, “The Informational Turn.”

Then it’s fully explained in chapter 9, “Entropy and Its Demons,” leading into: But information is physical. Maxwell’s demon makes the link. The demon performs a conversion between information and energy, one particle at a time. Szilard--who did not yet use the word information--found that, if he accounted exactly for each measurement and memory, then the conversion could be computed exactly. So he computed it. He calculated that each unit of information brings a corresponding increase in entropy--specifically, by k log 2 units. Every time the demon makes a choice between one particle and another, it costs one bit of information. The payback comes at the end of the cycle, when it has to clear its memory (Szilard did not specify this last detail in words, but in mathematics). Accounting for this properly is the only way to eliminate the paradox of perpetual motion, to bring the universe back into harmony to “restore concordance with the Second Law.”

This idea is expanded in chapter 13, “Information Is Physical”: The younger man pursued Landauer’s principle by analyzing every kind of computer he could imagine, real and abstract, from Turing machines and messenger RNA to “ballistic” computers, carrying signals via something like billiard balls. He confirmed that a great deal of computation can be done with no energy cost at all. In every case, Bennett found, heat dissipation occurs only when information is erased. Erasure is the irreversible logical operation. When the head on a Turing machine erases one square of the tape, or when an electronic computer clears a capacitor, a bit is lost, and then heat must be dissipated. In Szilard’s thought experiment, the demon does not incur an entropy cost when it observes or chooses a molecule. The payback comes at the moment of clearing the record, when the demon erases one observation to make room for the next.

Forgetting takes work.

Which leads to a thought in the Epilogue, one that particularly speaks to a librarian like myself, because in this age of information overload it takes experts who dwell in the information to filter it and make it usable; librarians, in other words, become more essential than ever: No deus ex machina waits in the wings; no man behind the curtain. We have no Maxwell’s demon to help us filter and search. “We want the Demon, you see,” wrote Stanislaw Lem, “to extract from the dance of atoms only information that is genuine, like mathematical theorems, fashion magazines, blueprints, historical chronicles, or a recipe for ion crumpets, or how to clean and iron a suit of asbestos, and poetry too, and scientific advice, and almanacs, and calendars, and secret documents, and everything that ever appeared in any newspaper in the Universe, and telephone books of the future.” As ever, it is the choice that informs us (in the original sense of that word). Selecting the genuine takes work; then forgetting takes even more work. This is the curse of omniscience: the answer to any question may arrive at the fingertips--via Google or Wikipedia or IMDb or YouTube or Epicurious or the National DNA Database or any of their natural heirs and successors--and still we wonder what we know.


On a related note, another section from Moonwalking with Einstein. I've often said in response to what is assumed to be my vast knowledge of information because of my profession, "Librarians don't know everything; we know how to find everything."

Indexes were a major advance because they allowed books to be accessed in the nonlinear way we access our internal memories. They helped turn the book into something like a modern CD, where you can skip directly to the track you want, as compared to unindexed books, which, like cassette tapes, force you to troll laboriously through large swaths of material in order to find the bit you're looking for. Along with page numbers and tables of contents, the index changed what a book was, and what it could do for scholars. The historian Ivan Illich has argued that this represented an invention of such magnitude that "it seems reasonable to speak of the pre- and post-index Middle Ages." As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory.

To our memory-bound predecessors, the goal of training one's memory was not to become a "living book," but rather a "living concordance," a walking index of everything one had read, and all the information one had acquired. It was about more than merely possessing an internal library of facts, quotes, and ideas; it was about building an organizational scheme for accessing them.


At 2/02/2017 5:40 PM, Blogger Degolar said...

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

"A pair of papers published on Thursday in the journal Science offer evidence for another notion: We sleep to forget some of the things we learn each day. . . .

" . . . proposed that synapses grew so exuberantly during the day that our brain circuits got “noisy.” When we sleep, the scientists argued, our brains pare back the connections to lift the signal over the noise."


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