Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tunneling, Anti-Tunneling, and Moving Beyond the Second Law of Infodynamics

Primo, Wiki-processes (open-source economics, generally) benefit from diversified inputs and spontaneous order via emergence and thus are entropy maximizing given our constraints (time, energy, and perceptions, to name a few).

Segundo, on the topic of "silent evidence," I realized another level to the importance of the message, "God watches when no one else is looking." At least "God" recognizes silent evidence. Much of what we do as local animals - help neighbors and family members - goes unnoticed on a large scale. This concept provides validation and reassurance for acts that go "unnoticed." In a world of global recognition and power-law unfairness in social status, those who act for recognition, power, and praise move from local to global (national, bigger) stages - political campaigns, alas, for instance - to gain the adoration that we bestow (disproportionately) on super-stars in our modern world. As you act locally, remember that "God," at least, is watching (your family, friends, and neighbors are, or should be, as well) - your silent acts of kindness do not go unrecognized (continue to act locally).

Tercero, here is my essay, "Tunneling, Anti-Tunneling, and Moving Beyond the Second Law of Infodynamics":

Clearly, the information content of our universe is increasing rapidly - every blog entry (counting this one), every email, every television advertisement, and every radio show adds to this information world; after all, we do live in the Information Age. With this expanding information content established, entropy (read here) is simply a measure of the dispersal of this information. In thermodynamics, when we deal with energy, we view entropy as the dispersal of energy. Overall, the entropy of our expanding (constant energy) universe is increasing, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics; so, for any process, the entropy change must be, at a minimum, greater than or equal to zero. One domain of the system can experience a decrease in entropy - biological organisms do this to survive (spontaneous order) - but, overall, the system as a whole (the universe) must obey the Second Law. For Infodynamics (a term I employ to help conceptualize the problem), the Second Law of Infodynamics comments on the dispersal of the information in our world. If we view entropy as the "diversification of this information across as many scales and dimensions as possible," it is clear that the information content of our universe is dispersing into new, previously unchartered niches and micro environments. Our brains cannot handle this expansion - it is both a physiological and practical matter (we only have so much time to devote to information intake) - so me must filter, reduce, compartmentalize, block, and organize our information inflows. In this process, we push the limits of these niches and micro ecologies, creating new ones along the way, within which we expand our information content further and further in ever-increasing detail (specific topic discussion boards online are excellent examples). Thus, it is well-established that we are rapidly adding information to our world, and this information is dispersing in a diversified manner across all scales and dimensions, and this coupling of Infodynamics, in light of our limited information intake and storage capacities (we cannot read every blog, website, etc.), requires that we filter information personally, within our specific lifestyles and contexts, which means that we must be mindful of how we search and act in the Information Age. At some level, we must order the information of and its processing within our individual domains, and how we order this information, I suspect, will only prove ever-more important as we progress into the future.

Why? Simple. Navanit Arakeri, in his wonderful essay, "Distributional Entropy, Information, and Fat-Tails", demonstrated the results of increasing entropy in our information world: fat-tails = progression further into Extremistan. Using a Student's T-Distribution, Navanit showed that kurtosis (click here) increases as entropy increases, creating those wild fat-tails that elicit more observations further into the extremes (in the long-tails, outside the "expected"). Using an efficient market as an example, Navanit comments that the more unexpected an event, the more information it adds to the market (information is the unexpected under the efficient market hypothesis since market prices reflect all available information), and thus the greater the increase in distributional entropy and the larger the impact of the event, increasing kurtosis along the way. Since we sample from history, this kurtosis, as Mandelbrot has developed, tends toward infinity as sample size increases to infinity (the future). Therefore, we are clearly moving further and further into the fat-tailed (increasing kurtosis) Black Swan-driven world of Extremistan, where unexpected events have gigantic impacts on our lives (both positive and negative). The textures of our world are changing rapidly in the Information Age, growing more and more recursive, producing wild randomness and fractures unlike anything we have experienced before.

So, we live in a world that is bombarding us with more and more information. This information is diffusing into as many scales and dimensions as possible, and our minds and bodies are, for the most part (despite our adept adaptability and flexibility - plasticity), built for our ancestral environments that are nothing like the ones we encounter today. The Pleistocene (and times soon after) is our home, and we are foreigners in the Information Age because we have never had to filter and combat so much information in the formats that we experience today: the ecological intelligence of hunting and gathering - living off the land as tribal people - varies tremendously from the tasks that we engage and participate in our daily, contemporary lives (just try avoiding your email for ten days to confirm this reality).

Given these conditions, why does Nassim Taleb warn us to, above all else, "avoid tunneling." Well, as I said above, we cannot possibly hold all the information of the universe in our presence at once, so we must search and act within our complex world as practitioners. Given the increasing entropy that we encounter, it is easy for us to explore small niches and specific domains - just Google a chronic disease and you will find an abundance of information. These micro realms emerge via spontaneous order as people organize the information content of their lives, which is often very useful and beneficial since these people share their experiences and contribute to global intelligence (the "global brain"). Tapping into these detailed and concentrated niches - specialized knowledge communities - is one of the great bonuses of living in the Information Age - we have resources at our finger tips, easily accessibly, like never before. Yet, tunneling tends to creep into our searching and acting patterns when we tunnel too deeply for too long into one micro domain - we lose diversification as a result. Think of tunneling as a corner solution in math - remember those stock picking games that one only wins by betting the farm in one small sector or on one stock, blowing up otherwise. Tunneling exposes us to blowups. Therefore, how we order, filter, and search and act upon information in our lives contributes immensely to our exposure to blowups.

Here is where we must move beyond the Second Law of Infodynamics and Thermodynamics. As biological organisms endowed with consciousness, we have the ability to order our informational world in multiple ways (we could choose to be "news junkies," for instance, expending much energy to "stay up-to-date" on the latest "breaking" news stories, for instance). Since this ordering is a process, a process which involves searching and acting, it seems that it would benefit us to understand this process better and figure out ways to optimize it for the sake, minimally, of our personal well-beings. 

Here is where "a picture says a thousand words":

Notice the intense activity in one location, then transitions and sometimes long flights to novel locations, where intense activity commences once again. Many organisms have evolved this type of foraging strategy as a pattern response to the all-important question, "What to do when you do not know (where potential food is, for example) and face constraints (time or energy, for instance)?"

Levy flights (illustrated above) are hedges against tunneling; anti-tunneling activity patterns that map an epistemocrat's opportunistic generalism inquiry and investigation rhythms. The illustration above represents how I try to structure my searching and acting every day; I suspect that opportunistic generalists tend to survive, so I diversify in a Levy, power-law fashion. But, why do I view this modus operandi as an anti-tunneling hedge against uncertainty that maximizes my exposure to the envelope of serendipity. Let's find out.

Black holes and tunneling - a fruitful perspective. Confirmation bias, the narrative fallacy, and Platonicity move us toward the "event horizon," and, if they drive us far enough, we disappear into the Black Hole, the tunnel, where even light has a hard time escaping.

Stephen Hawking suggests that information disappears in Black Holes; well, I argue that knowledge—ecological and non-ludic intelligence—disappears in tunnels: tunneling blinds us to the true fabrics of our world. Given our movements to reduce, tunneling is something we must combat regularly; when we tunnel narrowly into limited domains, we lose diversification - we no longer see the whole field when we move to reduce its dimensionality; we lose "perspective."

As discussed above, open-source approaches - the fallibility approach - to searching and acting engage diversified, decentralized inputs and benefit from emergence (spontaneous order): two important keys to abating tunneling. Wiki-style searching and acting certainly challenges traditional ivory-tower knowledge: note, academia can no longer hold knowledge in a straitjacket. As local animals, we are the experts, and we are engaging grass-roots movements in this Information Age from the bottom-up via open-source processes: the products that emerge from these processes tend to stretch the limits of being human in new and exciting ways (see Wikipedia for precedence).

Tunneling is an activity that I try to hedge against - I want to clip my exposure to off-model, unexpected hits as much as possible (I don't want to be blindsided by a bus while crossing the street blindfolded). For instance, in an effort to avoid tunneling in my erudition and learning endeavors, I have opted to read multiple books in parallel. Right now, I am reading Stephen Hawking's The Universe in a Nutshell, Sandeep Jauhar's Intern: A Doctor's Initiation (here), Jerome Groopman's Second Opinions: Stories of Intuition and Choice in the Changing World of Medicine, and, for a third time, Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (here). While engaging this diversified multi-source reading process, I try to read these books freely, without routine or a feeling of needing to finish them in any particular order. I read a chapter, or simply a few pages, from one book during one evening, then I delve deeply into another the next. Or, I read bits and pieces from multiple books in one sitting - I just let my mind direct my reading. Interestingly, novel connections seem to emerge between ideas and thoughts in books when I practice this learning strategy - connections that I could never have imagined nor predicted. Since I enjoy making connections, I have found that this reading mechanism enhances my joy of reading. Importantly, I suspect that this diversified, Levy-type reading strategy (diving deeply into one book, then putting it off for awhile while diving deeply into another book), could help protect against falling victim to the narrative fallacy, the confirmation bias, and Platonicity - those ever-lurking entrapment mechanisms that tunnel our thoughts and actions into narrow domains. Opportunistic generalism in learning and erudition appears to be a healthy hedge against tunneling, assisting the practice of epoche - suspending judgment - by encouraging continual investigation of new ideas, perspectives, and approaches to understanding, confronting, and searching and acting with and within the ever-elusive textures of our complex, recursive world.

Surely, generalism is easier said than done, however: most of us must specialize and pursue "occupations" in order to contribute to institutions and society and earn compensation for our services, products, and knowledge - "we have to pay the bills." Here is where the barbell strategy steps in nicely, once again. It's all about how you construct your personal skills portfolio. Establishing a career - neurosurgeon or dentist, for instance - as a specialist in a field could consume 80% to 90% of your working energy. Then, with the other 10% to 20% of your working energy (and free-time, I try not to separate work from play, as I am always thinking, observing, reflecting, and learning), you could leverage a diversified activity portion of your portfolio in options like writing books, composing music, producing artwork, getting involved with venture capital and startups, researching science or finance (remember, Darwin was an "amateur scientist"), creating web-based businesses (minimal overhead), or turning your favorite hobby into a profitable endeavor. Building a robust personal skills portfolio is an important key to avoiding tunneling and thus averting blow ups when markets, industries, economics, and social institutions shift (jump) in unexpected ways - via technological fractures, for example. If we take the implications of a move toward Extremistan seriously, which I suspect we should, we could benefit immensely from positioning ourselves to benefit from positive Black Swans while protecting ourselves against the strikes of negative ones as well. As an important piece to this portfolio building process, identifying how well your skills qualify as "expert" appears important, as discussed brilliantly by Navanit Arakeri in his recent blog post, "Learning in Complex Environments" (read here). If your specialty is neurosurgery or dentistry, then you meet the three requirements for expertise: one, a tight relationship between action and consequence; two, quick and clear feedback on actions; and, three, repeatability. If your occupation that you devote 80% or so of your efforts to satisfies these conditions, then leveraging a barbell personal skills portfolio could prove fruitful. Yet, if you occupy a non-expert position (stock analyst, for instance), you are hanging tightly to the benefits of barriers to entry into your field (see next paragraph), and your exposure to blowups is vast ...

This notion of barriers to entry and experts fascinates me. Many non-expert fields enjoy the benefits of massive hurdles and barriers to entry into their fields, despite their real-world lack of expertise (or limited expertise relative to their compensation). Many regulations that result from social engineering from on high construct enormous barriers to entry, producing unintended consequences like consolidation (see the US health insurance or banking industries for two vivid examples).

Nassim Taleb comments about consolidation in a Fortune article, "Fear of a Black Swan: Risk guru Nassim Taleb talks about why Wall Street fails to anticipate disaster" (click here; thanks to Dave Lull) in his answer to the following question:

Is there something fundamentally wrong with the structure of the U.S. financial system? What can be done to fix it?

Taleb: In the past, the financial world had a very diversified ecology: banks going bust on a steady basis. They were not all homogeneous.

Today the entire banking system is dominated by a few monster banks, and almost all have the same exposures. So the system became less and less volatile while becoming riskier and riskier. So we moved from the more resilient ecology to a more concentrated architecture. I used to say, "You trade with a bank, you end up trading with J.P. Morgan (JPM, Fortune 500)." Well, it turned out to be true with the Bear Stearns (BSC, Fortune 500) rescue.

The homogeneity in our banking system provides a lucid example of how tunneling exposes us to blow ups. Diversified ecology - an anti-tunneling landscape - suffers from small explosions (locally), but is much more resistant to wide-scale blow ups like the ones we have experienced recently in the United States. Consolidation breeds tunneling.

Interestingly, theories, on one level, represent consolidation of knowledge. Nassim Taleb's statement, "Don't have theories," speaks to the reality that, as foreigners in a world that we do not understand, we could hedge against tunneling by recognizing our humble limits, identifying areas where we know what we know and areas that we don't know what we don't know, and leverage this perspective of the world to practice our crafts as theory-free empirical skeptics, concerned with real-world results and ecological and non-ludic intelligence, stemming from practice, building our tentative and speculative knowledge-base from the ground up. Additionally, minimal theorizing helps us to factor for the invisible - the unknown unknowns - and to avoid tunneling on inseparabilities (nature versus nurture, for example).

Relating inseparabilities to locality, I contend that local actions are global actions; they are inseparable distinctions. This is how, as local animals in a global world, we can act locally while thinking globally and locally, to enhance our personal lives, our families, and our communities, which, in turn, given the self-affinity nature of our fractal world, could create robust local and global communities that help us live, play, and grow together. We can tap into global dynamics in our current civilization (another way to avoid tunneling locally - stay abreast and connected globally = 10% to 20%), but locality (80% to 90%) drives our lives and ecological intelligence. 

Integrating this dynamic with efforts to avoid tunneling, Dave Lull tipped me to a fabulous blog posting, "A heretical thought for a journalist," by Rod Dreher (click here to read):

Taleb identifies an interesting Information Age paradox: the more information an individual takes in, the less he knows. To be precise, the less he knows about what he needs to know. That is, he doesn't appreciate the difference between information and knowledge. Information thus becomes "toxic," in Taleb's view, because it causes us to make poor choices based on a false picture of the world, a picture informed by "noise" -- that is, information that has not been properly processed, weighed, measured, and placed in context. Taleb:

"The more detailed knowledge one gets of empirical reality, the more one will see the noise (i.e., the anecdote) and mistake it for actual information. Remember that we are swayed by the sensational. Listening to the news on the radio every hour is far worse for you than reading a weekly magazine, because the longer interval allows information to be filtered a bit."

What if we are being poisoned by toxic information? What if having more information about the whole wide world at our fingertips, instantly, is not making us smarter and stronger, but in fact dumber and weaker? What if the wise man is not the same thing as the well-informed man, and one would be better off doing what Taleb did, and swearing off the daily newspaper and spending that time reading serious books instead?

Would you be better off canceling The New York Times and committing yourself to reading Dostoevsky and Faulkner instead? Is the man who travels around the world constantly and reads several papers and websites a day really more knowledgeable about the way the world works than the farmer who tends his field and takes care of his animals and his little patch of ground in the world?

I told you it was a heretical thought for a journalist.

Could the barbell, power-law-style approach to searching and acting apply to these dynamics as well: sure. Spend 80% to 90% of your time searching and acting locally, as a local animals interacting with local people (starting with family), communities, institutions, and organizations, then leverage the wonders of our modern environments and network globally, searching and acting on broad-scale levels along the way.

Just remember, when we move beyond the Second Law, and we order our informational worlds, anti-tunneling devices exist - the Levy approach, as illustrated above - and discovering practical ways to search and act effectively while avoiding tunneling could prove increasingly important as we progress further and further into Extremistan - we can leverage entropy in our favor, we just have to go about it the right way.

Stay tuned for my next essay, "Leveraging Cheap Health Options." After that, I will advance the "local animal" front with discussions of Bill Kauffman (here) and his work, including his essay, "Think Locally, Act Locally, Live Locally" (click here to read); Robert Putnam (here) and his work, including his talk, "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (read here); and Dunbar's number (enjoy here; thanks to Navanit).

Lastly, here are a few tunneling thoughts: Firstly, I suspect that we have tunneled on (or at least overemphasized) the brain as the central controller of our minds - similar to the "central dogma" notion that we tunneled on in biology for many years. Evidence from neural inputs in the heart, for instance, suggests that our neural function contributing to consciousness may be more complicated than we have imagined: as Art DeVany notes, Descartes had it backwards (I think, therefore I am). Our brains are stationed in our head, where we can concretely associate thoughts with a crisp anatomical structure, but I suspect that this platonic notion may be necessary, but not sufficient, to understanding the sophisticated system that drives our thoughts, behaviors, and memories. Secondly, some flavors of evidence-based medicine appears to tunnel towards a one-size-fits-all, "best practices," and population-based perspective that could miss the individualization of healing. Given the stochastic nature of medicine, I suspect that tailoring treatment modalities and healing approaches represent important components of meeting people's varied healthcare needs (Read more here from DrRich). ... 

I hope this blog does not add toxic information to your life; by composing essays, I am making my best effort to minimize white noise and only add novel contributions to our Advanced Knowledge Civilization.

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