Monday, September 30, 2013

new arrangements and the flash of genius

Came across this nugget from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:
The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have long since known.
Another way of stating this in terms of information theory, I think, is to say that new information consists now of applying past knowledge into new arrangements.  Consider this interesting exchange from the movie Flash of Genius:
You have a Ph.D in electronic engineering, is that correct?
Uh, that's correct. I've taught for the past several years...
No, that's fine, sir. Your credentials are already part of the record. Now, when you said earlier that Mr. Kearns didn't create anything new, could you explain what you meant by that?
 Yes. As you can see, Dr. Kearns's basic unit consists of a capacitor a variable resistor and a transistor. Now, these are basic building blocks in electronics. You can find them in any catalog. All Mr. Kearns did was to arrange them in a new pattern, you might say. And that, that's not the same thing as inventing something new, however.
 Did Mr. Kearns invent the transistor?
 No, sir, he did not.
 Did Mr. Kearns invent the capacitor?
 Again, no, he did not.
 Did Mr. Kearns invent the variable resistor?
 No, he did not.
Thank you, Professor.
Or more amusingly, in an episode of the series "3rd Rock From the Sun," High Commander Dick Solomon tries to discredit a novelist by pointing out that he has used information that is accessible to anyone:
[to Jeff] You think you're pretty clever, don't you? I happen to know that every word in your book was published years ago! [to everyone in the room] Perhaps you've read...The Dictionary!
Jeff wrote his novel by merely recombining meaningful words, and Robert Kearns merely rearranged the previously discovered transistors, capacitors, and variable resistors into new parts.  In the first instance, plagiarism would consist of stealing Jeff's particular improbable combinations of words, and in the second instance, intellectual theft consisted of stealing Kearn's ingenious arrangement of standard components.

Consider now that Charles R. Marshall and other biologists have argued that the Cambrian Explosion might have resulted from "simply rewiring the existing genetic networks." To say that this solves the informational problem is like saying that all I need to do to create useful computer programs is to "tweak" how the procedures invoke one another and how data flows between them.

Pierre-Paul Grassé wrote, "If to determine the origin of information in a computer is not a false problem, why should the search for the information contained in cellular nuclei be one?"  Indeed.

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