terça-feira, 18 de janeiro de 2011

Patterns vs. Randomness

There is another, even deeper reason for our inclination to narrate, and it is not psychological. It has to do with the effect of order on information storage and retrieval in any system, and it's worth explaining here because of what I consider the central problems of probability and information theory.

The first problem is that information is costly to obtain.

The second problem is that information is also costly to store—like real estate in New York. The more orderly, less random, patterned, and narratized a series of words or symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one's mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.

Finally, information is costly to manipulate and retrieve.


Consider a collection of words glued together to constitute a 500-page book. If the words are purely random, picked up from the dictionary in a totally unpredictable way, you will not be able to summarize, transfer, or reduce the dimensions of that book without losing something significant from it. You need 100,000 words to carry the exact message of a random 100,000 words with you on your next trip to Siberia. Now consider the opposite: a book filled with the repetition of the following sentence: "The chairman of [insert here your company name] is a lucky fellow who hap­pened to be in the right place at the right time and claims credit for the company's success, without making a single allowance for luck," running ten times per page for 500 pages. The entire book can be accurately com­pressed, as I have just done, into 34 words (out of 100,000) ; you could re­produce it with total fidelity out of such a kernel. By finding the pattern, the logic of the series, you no longer need to memorize it all. You just store the pattern. And, as we can see here, a pattern is obviously more compact than raw information. You looked into the book and found a rule. It is along these lines that the great probabilist Andrey Nikolayevich Kolmogorov defined the degree of randomness; it is called "Kolmogorov com­plexity."

We, members of the human variety of primates, have a hunger for rules because we need to reduce the dimension of matters so they can get into our heads. Or, rather, sadly, so we can squeeze them into our heads. The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize. The more you summarize, the more order you put in, the less randomness. Hence the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is.

And the Black Swan is what we leave out of simplification.

(The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

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