Monday, 17th November, 2003

Trying to Measure the Amount of Information That Humans Create

New York Times, Nov 12, 2003

o you know what an exabyte is? I didn't until I started reading a new report, called "How Much Information? 2003," from the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems. An exabyte turns out to be a billion gigabytes. Most new computers, by comparison, come with hard drives around 40 to 100 gigabytes in size.

The authors of the report estimate that in 2002 the human species stored about five exabytes of new information on paper, film, optical or magnetic media, a number that doubled in the past three years. Five exabytes, as it happens, is equivalent to all words ever spoken by humans since the dawn of time.

To gauge how much new information humans now produce in a given year, you have to imagine digitizing and storing all of it, including forms of information that aren't already digital and forms that aren't usually stored, including all e-mail messages, all the Web pages on the entire Internet and all telephone conversations.

As the authors point out, "The striking finding here is that most of the total volume of new information flows is derived from the volume of voice telephone traffic, most of which is unique content." In 2002, that telephone traffic added up to about 17 exabytes, more than three times all the words ever spoken by humans until that point.

Staring at numbers and comparisons like this, which are more than merely boggling, is enough to make you wonder just what information is. Perhaps it seems obvious to say that information of the kind that can be stored and counted up is created and consumed entirely by humans. So let me say it another way. Our idea of information is meaningless to the rest of creation. The cocoon of data and language that humans live in goes undetected by the rest of earth's organisms. In all those exabytes of chatter there are words, of course, that refer to something beyond the narrow bounds of human experience. But vast quantities of what gets cataloged as information are purely self-referential, talk about the act of talking, so to speak. That is partly what makes us human.

I find myself wondering about other kinds of information. The precise pattern in which the autumn leaves lie in my pasture would not be "information," according to the analysts at Berkeley, unless I took a photograph of it, preferably a digital one. But even without the photograph, the pattern is information, shifting momentarily under a cold, bright wind out of the west. If you were to ask how much information the earth contains, as a whole, one way to answer the question would be to assess the number of bytes present in all the DNA on earth, once it had been digitized. But that is too static an answer for me. It treats each being as a museum specimen, ready to be closed away in a dark drawer somewhere, and it rules out the possibility that movement itself and the interaction of all these beings is also information. If it's somehow plausible to treat all the interrupted cellphone conversations in 2002 as a kind of information, then it should be plausible to think of all the bird songs and insect noises uttered in that calendar year as information, too.

It's worth pointing out that "information," in the Berkeley sense, is a wholly biological enterprise on our part — not that different, in a way, from the webs that spiders build. But after reading the report all I could hear in its pages was the silence of the rest of nature, nature's lack of "information," its inability to yield storable data.

Yet that is not my experience. I spend part of every week wired to the world, with an intravenous connection to the Internet. I read and talk and listen. And yet even in my office I am inundated with what cannot be calibrated. The body language I witness when a politician stops by is information to me, but not "information." The unsettled emotions I experience as I read through my stack of newspapers every day is information, too, but not "information."

And when at last I go home to the country, I step out of the pickup truck and into a world of pure information, all of it entirely, gloriously ephemeral. The moon is low in the southern sky. The ducks, disturbed by my headlights, stir in their pen and make delicate, reassuring noises. The bare tree branches cross and cross again against the stars on the horizon. One of the pigs rolls over in his house, and I can hear the weight of his body as he settles into his hay. These observations are now "information," but what they are to me cannot be measured.

Trying to Measure the Amount of Information That Humans Create
logged by alf at 10:41, Monday, 17th November, 2003

Wednesday, 12th November, 2003

Virtue in mind: New Scientist Interview with Antonio Damasio

What has the virtuous life of a 17th-century philosopher got to do with going out for lunch, the need for a second Enlightenment, basing feeling and emotion in maps of the body - and being furious with your boss? For the past decade, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been weaving such strands together in his books, the latest of which, Looking for Spinoza, was published in May. He has provided New Scientist with some fascinating discussions over the past year

Your first major book had you tangling with Descartes, now you've taken on Spinoza. Is this an odd thing for a neuroscientist to do?

I regard philosophy as very important, both in the past but also in the present. Philosophy incorporated all of the sciences, and as new sciences develop they sort of peel off from philosophy. But that doesn't mean philosophy lost its reasons to exist: first, because the continuity of ideas is very important to preserve; second, because the heart of philosophy today is an attempt to reach conceptual clarity, and that remains a needed commodity in science. Of course, one could say that conceptual clarity is exactly what a scientist should achieve anyway, and so there is no need to bring philosophy into the process. However, I think that a dialogue with colleagues whose business it is to find defects in arguments and scrutinise the interpretations and conclusions of scientists is a good thing to have. The collaboration is needed and could be fruitful, but it requires a certain humility on both sides, and open minds. I also believe that a collaboration between neurobiology and other human sciences is most desirable.

So this dialogue could really enrich the world of ideas?

If the dialogue between science and philosophy really gets rich, it has a hope of producing something like the effect Spinoza had on the Enlightenment. It also has a hope of being relevant to how people think of themselves and how they live their lives. People will pay more attention to philosophical issues if philosophy has something to offer to the way you think and conduct yourself as a human being.

Why Baruch Spinoza in particular?

When you think of Spinoza or Aristotle, you see individuals who were thoroughly committed to the problems of the day. Spinoza, for example, throws light on how your mind works and on the conception of nature. But he is also thoroughly involved with issues to do with social and political organisation. One of the most important aspects of Spinoza's philosophy is that it imposes certain ways of thinking about the human being, about freedom, and about how individuals can organise society. You cannot think through Spinoza's philosophy and not demand of yourself that you're going to respect the "other", and that you refuse not being allowed to speak your mind.

So how did you end up going on this pilgrimage to track him down?

It began by coincidence. I had long kept a quote from Spinoza and when I went to check it a few years ago, I started reading around it and could not stop. I found remarkable consonance with what I think today about the neurobiology of emotion, and a beautiful view of the impact of emotion in the world of social behaviour and ethics. Although Spinoza never mentions the brain because so little was known at that time, he was thinking like a biologist and anticipating people like the psychologist William James. So I read everything I could and ended up tracking down the places he had lived in Holland to try to complete the picture of this man.

One of those points of consonance for you lies in Spinoza's idea that "the human mind is the very idea or knowledge of the human body". How does it relate to your ideas?

I too believe that continuous signals from the body to the brain provide a continuous backdrop for the mind. In fact, I doubt we could be conscious in the usual sense of the term if we did not have a backdrop. Body signalling is also the essential substrate for feelings. When we have an emotion we alter the state of the body in a variety of ways, and then we register the resulting changes in the brain's body maps and feel the emotions. Emotions come first, feelings second.

It's a shocking thought for many people that emotion precedes feeling...

My view is that the substance of feelings, the heart of feelings, is really a perception of what has changed in our organism, in our bodies during an emotion. Emotions are unlearned responses to certain classes of stimuli. We are equipped to have emotions, thanks to evolution. When we emote we alter the state of the organism in a rather profound manner - the internal milieu, the viscera, the musculature - and we behave in a particular way. The collection of these changes is the emotion, a rather public affair which helps us deal with a threat (think of fear) or with an opportunity (eat or drink or mate). Feelings are the perception of these changes together with the perception of the object or situation that gave rise to the emotion in the first place. In essence, this is James's idea, although Spinoza envisioned something similar. James was attacked for this proposal.

So how does your view differ?

My view is that we do not need to have huge changes in the body itself, at least not all the time. Rather, we can have direct changes in the maps of the body within the brain. Those maps are constantly looking at the whole organism, surveying what is going on in the viscera, in the internal milieu chemically, in the musculoskeletal system, in the vestibular system and so on. However, we can bypass the whole body altogether and have, say, the pre-frontal cortex or the amygdala change the state of the body maps directly. In those circumstances, a very rapid alteration of the mapping of the organism can be achieved, which may, to a certain extent, falsify what is really going on the organism. I proposed this mechanism of feeling in the early 1990s - the as-if-body-mechanism. Now we have plenty of evidence for this mechanism: for example, the discovery of "mirror neurons" shows that we can construct a very complex model of the body inside our brain, an internal model of our organism actually, and that we manipulate that model for a variety of purposes.

It's all very well basing feeling and emotion in maps of the body. But suppose I have some pretty upset feelings about what the boss is going to do to my budget. Are you suggesting I would be feeling this through my body rather than just cognitively wanting to hit him?

Yes. If there were no change in your body maps, I doubt whether you would feel anything. The word "feeling" would not apply. In reality, we don't separate emotion from cognition like layers in a cake. Emotion is in the loop of reason all the time. We have inherited an incredibly complex emotional apparatus which, in evolution, was tied to certain classes of objects and situations that were fairly narrow - things that were threatening, that could cause anger or trigger compassion, shame or embarrassment. But now we have added to that repertoire of emotional triggers many other objects and situations we have learned in our lives, so we do have the possibility of responding emotively to all sorts of situations, like your budget deficit.

So how does that work?

As you imagine good and bad situations, whatever you imagine is actually creating an emotional state and feeling states that accompany it, like a choir singing on the side and singing underneath the score. We cannot have much in the way of ideas that are purely "cognitive" without having accompanying emotions and feelings. They are just there all the time.

Is this where neuroscience supports Spinoza's ideas that the human mind consists of images and mental representations of the body?

Yes, and our studies enable some of these processes to be teased apart.

Which are the most important patient groups in your studies?

One important group is patients with bilateral damage to the amygdala, who as a result have an inability to experience fear. Because they do not have the emotion of fear, they do not feel fear. They also cannot recognise fear in the facial expression of others.

What did you learn from other patients?

There are other patients who show damage in the very maps of the brain where we are postulating feelings must arise from, and lo and behold, you can get the strange situation of having patients who emote and yet do not have the proper feeling related to their emotion, which suggests that in fact there is a breakdown in body mapping. Patients with damage to the ventromedial frontal lobe have problems with another class of emotion, the social emotions: shame, embarrassment, guilt, compassion, a sense of moral indignation. Damage to this region of the brain can interfere with decision making.

In what way?

Those patients treat the world in a very unemotionally marked way. So even if they have to make a decision that is rather simple - do we go out for lunch or do we stay in - they cannot decide rapidly and reasonably but will argue the pros and cons, especially if they are intelligent. They will say: "Ah, going out is a nice idea because actually the weather is very nice. However, many people must be out today so the restaurants must be full because the weather is so good, so maybe we should stay in. But if we stay in we do not have the food, so we would probably have to order in, then there would be a lot of delay anyway, so maybe we should go out. Or should we?"

How long would this go on for?

The answer is probably between never and a long time. The patients lose the reasonableness of deciding, they lose common sense, and are totally immersed in this fruitless analysis. And this points to what I think emotion contributes to decision making, covertly or overtly, which is to make some options immediately endorsable or immediately rejectable. Which, of course, means that in our decision making we use the facts that come from general knowledge and our prior emotional experience of similar situations, namely, the reward or punishment associated with similar situations in the past.

What happens then?

You have all these nice biasing mechanisms that are helping your navigation and speeding things up for you. They are really the baggage of your experience of a variety of situations, good, bad, indifferent, valuable and trivial. This is not separable from emotion because all of your experiences occur in an emotion-full world. The point is, we do not live in a neutral world. Our experiences are always emotionally loaded and we make use of that experience. And if we lose our ventromedial frontal lobe, we are suddenly deprived of the baggage of our emotional experience and we are in trouble. And this points to something interesting: since we are a little bit at the mercy of our emotions, it also means that the way we cultivate the connection of emotions to different contents is quite critical.

That's very interesting...

It's an interesting idea because that is where the environment comes in so powerfully, some people say: "Oh, so you're saying that our decisions are at the mercy of emotions and of course emotions came to use via evolution and genes, and so we are over-determined." The reasoning is absurd, because even if it is true that emotions are planted in us by evolution, the way we have cultivated our relations with the world depends entirely on how we were educated or our family ideals or the social environment, and of course we can end up being Mother Theresa or some bad guy.

How did Spinoza live out the virtuous life? Hadn't he turned away from God?

He had the most amazing life, packed into only 44 years. He clashed with everyone. His free thinking led him to be excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. An attempt was made to kill him; only his thick cloak saved him from the knife thrust. And his books were banned long after he died. Spinoza did have a God but not one conceived in the image of humans. For him, God is nature. You cannot pray to Spinoza's God and you need not fear Him because He will not punish you. What you should fear is your own behaviour. When you fail to be less than kind to others, you punish yourself, there and then, and deny yourself the opportunity to achieve inner peace and happiness, there and then.

How does this connect to neurobiology?

Spinoza's salvation is about repeated occasions of the kind of happiness that, cumulatively, make for a healthy mental condition. The Spinoza solution also asks the individual to attempt a break between the stimuli that can trigger negative emotions - passions such as fear, anger, jealousy - and the very mechanisms that enact emotion. The individual should substitute those emotionally competent stimuli that are capable of triggering positive, nourishing emotions. Spinoza's solution hinges on the mind's power over the emotional process.

Was Spinoza truly content? Could you live that way?

Despite all the difficulties he faced, Spinoza survived in a quiet, noble way. I admire that tremendously because I don't think that I could live that way. I believe that in a way he lived a contented life. I have always thought you can draw tremendous pleasure from intellectual pursuits, and that is probably how he achieved contentment.

Virtue in mind: New Scientist Interview with Antonio Damasio
logged by alf at 15:59, Wednesday, 12th November, 2003

Thursday, 6th November, 2003

Thoughts on the EZ-Link Card boo-boo

1. The guidelines and terms of use for each card (which remains the property of EZ-Link despite you paying for em) already provide for a card cost of up to S$5. In other words they were all along planning to raise the cost component to the full $5 regardless of takeup.

2. Takeup and extra cards are clearly not a "problem" with them since they use it as a selling pt on their website :

"EZ-Link Pte Ltd (EZL) is a subsidiary of the Land Transport Authority and was formed on the 8 January 2002.Our core business is the sale, distribution and management of ez-link Cards as well as the clearing and settlement of ez-link card transactions generated in transit and non-transit applications.

We have over 5 million cards in circulation today have achieved more wallet share in Singapore than any other card payment device. On a daily basis, over 4 million financial transactions are processed through our system and this is constantly growing with the proliferation of the card in the non-transit payment arena. Despite this, we are committed to keeping abreast with the very latest in contactless smart card technology and strive to offer a variety of cost efficient and proficient service products that are integral to our customers' lives.

EZL has appointed Transit Link Pte Ltd as the agent to manage the day-to-day use of ez-link Cards on public transport. Under this arrangement, Transit Link will sell and distribute ez-link Cards, as well as provide value top-up, card replacement and refund services to holders of ez-link Cards."

3. The original $2 discount for people who buy their first card if they show their NRIC implies (and is also stated in original press releases) that they expect people to buy more than one damn card in the first place. 5.3 million out of 3 million used implies on average 80% people have only ONE spare card.

4. If the card all cost so much, it fails in its purpose of defraying fraud or making public transport more cost-effective. Why change from those old magnetic solutions in the first place, where everyone can buy as many as they want and even collect them. Heck, we never needed to remember to zap our cards twice back then!

5. Why not just issue every Singaporean a free card and impose a one-card policy? Or better yet, use your IC for public transport?

6. Why aren't the cost of cards passed on to the transport operators who are earning all the trip profits?

7. Why doesn't LTA just absorb the bloody losses? It's publicly funded anyway right? If the argument is that those who "hoard" cards are accruing more than their fair share of govt subsidies, well then anyone who can't afford a car or private housing and has to resort to public transport/housing is already accruing more than their fair share of public funds. That's why it's a public good, non?

Thoughts on the EZ-Link Card boo-boo
logged by alf at 11:17, Thursday, 6th November, 2003