Sunday, November 24, 2013

Instructions on How to Understand Words Written by Julio Cortazar

The first part of Paul Blackburn's translation of Cronopios and Famas that I have in my hand consists of a set of absurd instructions collectively called The Instruction Manual. There are various unusual instructions, advisories and strategies, most of which appear completely redundant on account of their dubious usefulness. What they are often instructive for, other than being rather entertaining, is as a nimble survey of the limits of language.

Take for instance "Instructions on how to kill ants in Rome". If the title itself doesn't raise an eyebrow it can only be because we thought this might be a traveller's guide on how to avoid the annoyance of ants while spending a weekend in Rome.

Think again.

"Ants, it is said, will eat Rome", we are told in the very first sentence. The narrator promptly exhibits a melodramatic overreaction that can only mean his statement was taken somewhat too literally: "They scurry between the flagstones: O she-wolf, what highway of precious stones slices your throat?"

The somewhat suspect deduction is then made that the hidden waterways of the city, connecting fountain to fountain, are the prime highways for the ants - a secret bit of knowledge revealed in a suitably conspiratorial tone for the benefit of the reader - and that finding the heart of all fountains should be our main goal.

The absurdities come thick and fast, all in support of an urgent need to instruct us in the mysterious ways of divining the complex myriad of "imperial vessels" :

"go by way of the Quirinal, climb to the Campidoglio, run shouting through the Pincio, land with a motionless apparition like a ball of fire on the orderly walks of the Piazza della Essedra, this is how to extract from the ground's silent metals the catalogue of subterranean rivers", (p. 19)

At last when the place where "the heart of the water hammers out its time" is found "we shall kill the ants by arriving before them at the central fountain".

Part of the comedy relies on the narrator's obsessive eccentricity. We want to say "how come you know so much about this, and haven't eradicated the ants yourself?". This is in effect a clue to the fissure at the heart of the instructions. Metaphors and expressions are, erroneously, taken for the real thing, constituting a break between language and reality.

A related theme, that of using words inappropriately, is evident in the next set of instructions: "Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase".

Based on its title we could conjecture that there are, after all, people who may not know how to climb a staircase, and therefore the instructions are not entirely redundant - just not applicable in the case of most readers. But that soon turns out to be a false supposition.

The instructions start out by describing a stair - a single stair - in the most obtuse, even confusing fashion to those already familiar with stairs.

"No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness", (p. 21)

There is something dreamlike about this description, as if the discovery of a stair is possible even after we have lived in a house for a long time ("No one will have failed to observe").

This deliberately imposed cerebral distance between the words and the reality makes us realise that words can be discovered just as reality is discovered. We are not merely discovering a stair in reality, we are discovering a stair in language. The narrator's pedantic scientia absurdum is "helping" us to discover the stair in language.

"Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and the right hand upon the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair", (p. 21)

Despite this wonderful novelty, we soon sense that it may not be such a useful discovery after all, and that words may not be the most appropriate form in which to explain these instructions. Just as we commonly say that a picture is worth a thousand words, we come to see that these words are not a very good way to explain the problem at hand. In fact, they are not even likely to succeed - indeed are more likely to confuse - someone who does not know how to climb stairs.

This point hits home with the confusing use of "foot" as a technical term in the instructions:

"(The first steps are always the most difficult, until you acquire the necessary coordination. The coincidence of names between the foot and 'the foot' makes the explanation more difficult. Be especially careful not to raise, at the same time, the foot and 'the foot')", (p. 22)

Cortazar's Instructions reward several readings. They are surprisingly dense, usually no more than two or three pages long, but full of absurdities and little surprises at the edge of language.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Luciano Floridi and a Short Introduction to Information : Part 2

Semantic information as presented by Luciano Floridi deserves a discussion all on its own. He not only describes how it differs from MTC, which we talked about in Part 1, but also introduces two logical paradoxes that each require some explanation. To prepare ourselves let's take a look at the following formal definition of semantic information:

"p qualifies as factual semantic information if and only if p is (constituted by) well-formed, meaningful and veridical data." (p. 50)

Note the veridical aspect in this definition. Information that is not true is not considered factual semantic information. Floridi explains that there is a difference between semantic content and semantic information, which the definition tries to express. Instances of the former can be either true or false, but instances of the latter are always true.

Take for example the case of John, who tells a mechanic that the car's battery is flat because his wife forgot to switch off the car's lights. In actual fact it was John who forgot to switch off the lights, but he does not want to own up to it. The fact that the car's battery is flat is a case of semantic information, because it is true, but what he told the mechanic about the cause, namely that it was his wife's carelessness, is semantic content because it is not true.

Advantages of the definition

There are several advantages to the definition, of which three are highlighted by Floridi:

1. False information is not genuine information
2. Knowledge and information are directly related
3. It solves the Bar-Hillel Carnap paradox

We've already discussed the first point on the list, but the second point is equally important. Knowledge and information are closely related, and of the same conceptual family. Any epistemic project, for instance a subject like biology, is made up of bits of information related to one another. These bits of information account for one another to provide a coherent view of the subject. Semantic information forms the correct starting point for any scientific investigation.

Before proceeding to the paradoxes, including the relevance of the third advantage, it is worth clarifying the relationship between MTC and semantic information.

Relationship to MTC and IRP

At its inception MTC generated much excitement for its theoretical potential in the emerging field of information. Unfortunately, as time passed it became clear that many of the semantic concerns of information could not be explained by MTC. For instance, it could not clarify inquiries into semantic questions surrounding truth and error, explain the relation between one piece of information and another, or assist investigations into more complicated forms of epistemic and psychological phenomena.

While there continues to be debate about the degree to which semantic information is constrained by MTC, there is nevertheless a general acknowledgement that the constraints have loosened over time. Despite this, some connections between the two have remained stable. Of these the communication model (previously explained in part 1) and the Inverse Relationship Principle (IRP) have remained the most stable.

As IRP is important in order to understand the paradoxes let's take a quick look at it. Remember that MTC describes information in terms of probability. For instance a unary source provides 100% probability (and hence no new information).

In the light of this IRP can be understood as:

"the inverse relation between the probability of p - where p may be a proposition, a sentence of a given language, an event, a situation, or a possible world - and the amount of semantic information carried by p"

The scandal of deduction

This is brings us to the first of the two paradoxes, namely the scandal of deduction. As per IRP, the higher the probability of p, the less informative it is. At the extreme end, when P(p) = 1, it is at its least informative because it is always true.

Since it is always true it is also a tautology. Tautologies are generally known for being non-informative, such as if John was told that the mechanic "will or will not" fix the car's battery. Although it is reasonable, it provides no new information.

The problem arises when we compare this with classical logic. As Floridi notes, "in any valid deduction, the information carried by the conclusion must already be contained in the information carried by the (conjunction of) the premises" (p. 55). In other words, a conclusion is possible only if the conditional is a tautology.

As has already been noted, a tautology is non-informative, and therefore a logical conclusion is by implication non-informative. This counter-intuitive outcome is called the scandal of deduction. It suggests that our logical and mathematical endeavours provide no new information, whereas we would certainly want to disagree.

One way to try and solve the issue is by appealing to the psychological value of informativeness. In this respect, logical reasoning elicits the meanings contained in the premises, highlighting them in a way that makes them clearer to our human brains. This approach does not explain how and why deductive reasoning is such an essential component in science, instead suggesting that it is optional for the sake of clarification.

A more successful way of resolving the dilemma involves the introduction of "virtual information" that assists the reasoning process and is then released by the time the conclusion is reached, leaving no traces.

To understand this, consider the hypothetical act of deciding what to do given two situations. Suppose you have an exam tomorrow and you are deciding whether to study for it or instead go to a party. Although you do not actually have foreknowledge you can reason that if you study then you might pass, but if you do not study you will definitely fail. After considering these hypothetical courses of action you realise that the first course of action could help you to attain the degree you've always desired. Thanks to logic, you decide to forego the party and study hard.

This process of reasoning involves "virtual information". The real outcome (studying) is only arrived at after you stepped outside the real situation in which the information applied, and reasoned hypothetically about the information at your disposal. Once you concluded and made your decision, you stepped back into the real situation.

This demonstrates that logical deductions are indeed valuable and informative.

The Bar-Hillel Carnap Paradox

As an exact opposite to the previous case, consider p becoming less and less probable. As it becomes less probable it should also become more informative. When p reaches zero it should logically be at its most informative. Yet when p is zero it is effectively a contradiction. An example would be "the car's battery is and is not flat". We should be receiving the most semantic information in this case, but instead we are faced with a contradiction.

This unexpected outcome is called the Bar-Hillel-Carnap paradox, after the two philosophers who first described and popularised it. The paradox is now considered a valid property of weakly semantic information, albeit a somewhat unfortunate one.

Nevertheless there is a simple way to avoid the paradox, namely by strengthening the semantic information with veridicality. As Floridi says, "if something qualifies as factual semantic information only when it satisfies the truthfulness condition, contradictions and indeed falsehoods are excluded a priori" (p. 59).

Contradiction is thereby a form of misinformation. The statement "the car's battery is and is not flat" would be incorrect in the strongly semantically informative sense, and should be "the car's battery is flat".

This concludes our discussion of semantic of information.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Why You Should Read Alice Munro's "Dear Life"

After this year's Nobel Prize for Literature was announced I promptly went onto Amazon and ordered the first best title by Alice Munro ("Dear Life").  Much like I did last year when Mo Yan was announced to be the winner.

Whereas I'd heard of Alice Munro before, I'd never actually read anything by her. I wasn't even aware that she wrote a type of fiction I rather enjoy: short stories about the complications of ordinary human life. If this happy outcome appears to justify a process as arbitrary as blindly choosing a Nobel Prize Winner as my reading matter, I nevertheless think it requires a bit of explanation.

I think of it as a question: Why would I be so willing to buy and then spend my often limited reading time engaged in a title without knowing anything about either the author or the themes she explores? To say that it is because the Nobel Prize committee bestowed its highest honour on her would be only half the answer. The other half is down to my own evolution as a reader.

As a reader I have often willingly explored obscure titles and unknown writers in the hope of finding a hidden gem, picking up (so I told myself) the trail of thoughts and experiences spurned by the mainstream. Gems I did find, but the trouble, as many readers will know, is that the road less traveled does not always equate quality. Just as travel marketers can turn a little known coastline into the Next Big Holiday Destination, our minds ramp up the significance of the unusual into real outliers. It's our love of the exotic, the novel, and the counter-cultural that is being appealed to.

This is not to diss the inclination to find those diamonds in the rough. Not at all. It's just that I noticed that what I gained in novel perspectives I was beginning to sacrifice in an appreciation of rigorous formal quality. I was taking my eye off the ability to express and communicate clearly. I had discovered unique thoughts and experiences, but not always masters of the craft.

It was time to bring these two sides together so they could learn from each other. First, I had to realise the obvious: before me, others came, read, enjoyed, and delivered judgment. There are numerous reasons why Jane Austen is still sitting pretty, not least of which is that her works still have plenty to say to contemporary audiences. The depth provided by their historical perspective are a bonus, and her writing style, slick and sharp, continues to appear fresh and modern. Or Checkhov, one of the grandaddies of the modern short story, whose respected influence has him mentioned frequently in comparison to big names writing in that genre today. None more so than Alice Munro herself.

Secondly, I had to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff in contemporary writing. This is a difficult undertaking when (a) I lack the time to read even a significant subset of eligible titles and (b) lack a coherent strategy when it comes to selecting from the titles touted by various online resources. It is difficult to discern commercial interests and twitter-friendly soundbites from personal taste, a fact made even more difficult when reviews tend to be on the shallow side despite using big words in bold strokes. How I long for the "close reading" espoused by my English Literature lecturers sometimes ...

Which inevitably loops back to the fact that outliers are usually ignored in the academic community - at least at first - so that those who are likely to provide serious commentary tend to pick better established titles and writers. With this admittedly simple logic in mind the big literary competitions like the Booker, the Nobel, the Pulitzer etc. offer very reasonable - if not guaranteed exciting - starting points. What they might lack in novelty they will almost certainly make up for in mastery of the craft and - or so I like to think - the writer's ability to tell a story. Plus, at least some serious analysts are likely to have provided their insights for the rest of us to ponder.

In short, as a writer, reading a Nobel Prize Winner offers the opportunity to learn from a master.

"Dear Life", the most recent published work by Alice Munro, turns out to be wonderfully instructive. There is much more to appreciate than "mere" good storytelling. Her stories are also explorations of consciousness and of memory, told with wistful sympathy and wisdom. If Chekhov comes to mind in the pristine and unsentimental crispness of her writing, Raymond Carver's influence can be found in her sympathetic treatment of a diverse array of characters.

There is also a cinematic quality to various childhood memories - never more so than in the autobiographical quartet of stories at the end - that reminded me of Andrei Tarkovski's evocative "Mirror". We know the memories are not always complete and trustworthy - the narrator often indicates her uncertainty about specific facts - but they have the authenticity of old photographs and reels of silent film.

What amazed me is the ease with which Munro weaves strands of memory and consciousness into a single thread. Other reviewers have already observed how these stories are mini-novels deserving of individual attention and reflection. The apparent effortlessness of the prose belies the complexity of the process.

And I've learned a lot. From the narrator's tone (reflective without judgment) to the writer's uncanny ability to bring those disparate memories into the same space of consciousness. How does she do it?

One of the techniques she employs so well is merging past and present. The past is present, as when she reminisces about a dance her mother took her to in Voices. She achieves the fusion with a beautiful sleight of hand. One moment we are in the past:

"I don't mean that she [my mother] spent all her time wishing that things weren't as they were [..] She couldn't even devise as much times as she otherwise would have done in being disappointed with me, wondering why I wasn't bringing the right kind of friends, or any friends at all, home from the town school [..] Or indeed why I had learned to blank out even the prodigious memory I once had for reciting poetry, refusing to use it ever again for showing off." - p.287
Then in the next sentence an incredible deftness brings a disparate consciousness into the same set of thoughts:
"But I am not always full of sulks and disputes. Not yet. Here I am when about ten years old, all eager to dress up and accompany my mother to a dance. 
The dance was being held in one of the altogether decent but not prosperous-looking houses on our road."

Notice the switch from past tense to present tense to past tense. Not a tense structure your English teacher is likely to have taught you! But in the hands of a master it is like a surgical incision that leaves no scars. I'm sure Anton Chekhov would be pleased.