Thursday, April 22, 2010

Poetry as checksums

When you're sending information over a noisy channel, it helps to send an extra byte every so often to make sure what you've sent so far was right.  It occured to me that poetry contains this redundant information, in the form of the rhyming words at the end of lines (or other structural regularities in the text.)  If the words match, you know you remembered the line correctly. This makes poetry easier to memorize and pass down from one person to the next, which was especially important in pre-literate societies.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Living with a limited brain


Some interesting research has come out recently about the processing capacity of brains. For example, that the medial prefrontal cortex can only handle two tasks at once, or that working memory can only handle about 7 items at a time (but what's an item?), or that when people are actively trying to remember something complicated, their impulse control is reduced. In fact, there has been a lot of research showing that exerting the will to make a difficult decision uses a fuel resource (sugar from the blood) that many of these other tasks also need.
What happens when these resources are used up?  When we have been thinking too hard, or have been under heavy stress, or haven't had enough to eat or sleep, or are trying to remember too many things, or are trying to drive, or need a fix,we fall back on a simpler part of the brain. We lose the ability to think rationally, to choose future benefit over immediate reward; the ability to choose at all is reduced.  We become irritable, forgetful, angry, quick to argue.
I think one way to sell people things is to push them into this state of mental fatigue, so that they are more likely to make impulse decisions.  (Hence the TVs blaring advertisements at Walmart, or timeshare presentations.) I think it would be a good idea to plan our lives with these limitations in mind.  It can be very hard to see it happening to ourselves as it does; it just seems like everything is more irritating.  Other people see it as a bad mood.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Book of Life



There is a curious analogy between paleontology and biblical archaeology.  
In archaeology, you have the ruins of Jericho that can be dug up, and they're basically unchanged: some pieces may have been carried off by scavengers, and all the soft parts have dissolved, but basically the stone has been buried in the desert for a long time, and the archaeologist digs it up and makes guesses about it.
Along with that, the cultures involved are all still alive, still driving world history. So there's another source of information about the cultures that we can get through studying living languages, living cultures, and the text that holds them together.  The text itself has undergone edits, transpositions, errors, but manages to be maintained more or less intact through a process of careful copying and fact checking. 
We can dig up the bones of dinosaurs and make guesses about them, and try to reconstruct them that way.  Or we can look at the creatures descended from them, the birds, and study what has become of bird ways of life. And then there's the text, the bible of the saurischians, their DNA: which has been modified to suit the times, edited, miscopied, but thanks to the error checking molecules still contains in it most of the information about what dinosaurs were like, if we can learn to interpret the language its written in.