Saturday, February 24, 2007

Shortcut communications in today's world

A press release says that particularly among close associates, sharing even a little new information can slow down communication.

Some of people’s biggest problems with communication come in sharing new information with people they know well, newly published research at the University of Chicago shows.
Because they already share quite a bit of common knowledge, people often use short, ambiguous messages in talking with co-workers and spouses, and accordingly unintentionally create misunderstandings, said Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

"People are so used to talking with those with whom they already share a great deal of information, that when they have something really new to share, they often present it in away that assumes the person already knows it," said Keysar, who with graduate student Shali Wu tested Keysar’s communication theories and presented the results in an article, "The Effect of Information Overlap on Communication Effectiveness," published in the current issue of Cognitive Science.

"Sharing additional information reduces communication effectiveness precisely when there is an opportunity to inform—when people communicate information only they themselves know," the researchers said.

On a professional level, brief e-mails between colleagues can cause miscommunication, Keysar has learned from personal experience. "I once was scheduled to speak and had gotten the day of my talk mixed up. I received an e-mail from the host asking me if I was ok. I wrote back and said I was and didn’t find out until later that what he really wanted to know was where I was, as they were waiting for me to talk," Keysar said.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Intelligent design under scrutiny

I have taken this from a press release on Eurekalert, issued by the University of Chicago - it was so interesting I am posting the whole release.

In a thought-provoking paper from the March issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology , Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin) clearly discusses the problems with two standard criticisms of intelligent design: that it is unfalsifiable and that the many imperfect adaptations found in nature refute the hypothesis of intelligent design.

Biologists from Charles Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould have advanced this second type of argument. Stephen Jay Gould's well-known example of a trait of this type is the panda's thumb. If a truly intelligent designer were responsible for the panda, Gould argues, it would have provided a more useful tool than the stubby proto-thumb that pandas use to laboriously strip bamboo in order to eat it.

ID proponents have a ready reply to this objection. We do not know whether an intelligent designer intended for pandas to be able to efficiently strip bamboo. The "no designer worth his salt" argument assumes the designer would want pandas to have better eating implements, but the objection has no justification for this assumption. In addition, Sober points out, this criticism of ID also concedes that creationism is testable.

A second common criticism of ID is that it is untestable. To develop this point, scientists often turn to the philosopher Karl Popper's idea of falsifiability. According to Popper, a scientific statement must allow the possibility of an observation that would disprove it. For example, the statement "all swans are white" is falsifiable, since observing even one swan that isn't white would disprove it. Sober points out that this criterion entails that many ID statements are falsifiable; for example, the statement that an intelligent designer created the vertebrate eye entails that vertebrates have eyes, which is an observation.

This leads Sober to jettison the concept of falsifiability and to provide a different account of testability. "If ID is to be tested," he says, "it must be tested against one or more competing hypotheses." If the ID claim about the vertebrate eye is to be tested against the hypothesis that the vertebrate eye evolved by Darwinian processes, the question is whether there is an observation that can discriminate between the two. The observation that vertebrates have eyes cannot do this.

Sober also points out that criticism of a competing theory, such as evolution, is not in-and-of-itself a test of ID. Proponents of ID must construct a theory that makes its own predictions in order for the theory to be testable. To contend that evolutionary processes cannot produce "irreducibly complex" adaptations merely changes the subject, Sober argues.

"When scientific theories compete with each other, the usual pattern is that independently attested auxiliary propositions allow the theories to make predictions that disagree with each other," Sober writes. "No such auxiliary propositions allow … ID to do this."

In developing this idea, Sober makes use of ideas that the French philosopher Pierre Duhem developed in connection with physical theories – theories usually do not, all by themselves, make testable predictions. Rather, they do so only when supplemented with auxiliary information. For example, the laws of optics do not, by themselves, predict when eclipses will occur; they do so when independently justified claims about the positions of the earth, moon, and sun are taken into account.

Similarly, ID claims make predictions when they are supplemented by auxiliary claims. The problem is that these auxiliary assumptions about the putative designer's goals and abilities are not independently justified. Surprisingly, this is a point that several ID proponents concede.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Intel heads the pack on fast computing

Business Week reports that computing took a leap forward when chipmakers started putting more than one core, or central brain, on a single chip.

Chipmaker Intel says it has successfully produced a chip capable of processing 1 trillion calculations a second. The chip, which Intel claims is the fastest ever made, could start being used commercially in five years.

The huge processing power each chip would provide will dramatically change the the way we work and how we spend our leisure time. Financial analysis that takes days to perform in back offices could be done in seconds at a trader's terminal on Wall Street - says Business Week.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Wired explores what we don't know

Is the universe actually made of information? I am taking the intro to this sub-section of Wired Magazine's wonderful section this month called "What we don't know" - check it out.

Humans have talked about atoms since the time of the ancients, and ever-smaller fundamental particles of matter followed. But no one even conceived of bits until the middle of the 20th century. The bit is a fundamental particle, too, but of different stuff altogether: information.

It is not just tiny, it is abstract - a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. Now that scientists are finally starting to understand information, they wonder whether it’s more fundamental than matter itself.

Perhaps the bit is the irreducible kernel of existence; if so, we have entered the information age in more ways than one.

Wired says the quantum pioneer John Archibald Wheeler, perhaps the last surviving collaborator of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, poses this conundrum in oracular monosyllables: “It from bit.”

For Wheeler, it is both an unanswered question and a working hypothesis, the idea that information gives rise, as he writes, to “every it - every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”

This is another way of fathoming the role of the observer, the quantum discovery that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. “What we call reality,” Wheeler writes coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He adds, “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.”