Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Whistling Herring

 "He eteþ no ffyssh But heryng red."

The dialogue's not perfectly accurate but is more or less the MirrorMask version of an old Yiddish joke:
What’s green, hangs on a wall, and whistles?
Gryphon: I give up, I think, no wait, wait… Fine. What’s the answer?
Helena: Okay. It’s a herring.
Gryphon: But a herring isn’t green.
Helena: You can paint it green.
Gryphon: But a herring doesn’t hang on a wall.
Helena: You can nail it to a wall.
Gryphon: But a herring doesn’t whistle!
Helena: Oh, come on. I just put that in to stop it from being too obvious.
This puts me in mind of Dembski's tractability condition.  (In more recent developments of algorithmic specified complexity, the tractability condition is built in as a feature of randomness deficiency.)  Even if it's true that a herring can be green because of paint, and even if it can be made to hang on a wall, the effect is to include anything that can be painted green and hung on a wall.  These increase the specificational resources of the target space so that it's no longer specific.  I can paint a squirrel green and stick it on the wall.  Or a carrot.  Or a handkerchief.  Which is precisely the joke. Once I include things that aren't normally, typically green, as well as things that don't typically, normally hang on a wall, the riddle becomes intractable.   

Of course, riddles aren't as much fun if they are easily guessed, but generally, the joke works if after you hear the answer it sort of makes "I should've known" sense, if in some painful, groaning sort of way.  The herring joke is a joke on jokes, a joke for the opposite reason that it obviously can't work the way a riddle should.

Riddle: What simulation converges to highly specified sequences and accurately demonstrates how natural selection generates information?   

The ev program, if course!  Tom Schneider's ev program not only takes Shannon information as paradigmatic of biological information in general, but it takes as paradigmatic of the accumulation of biological information a sort of random sorting simulation that forces a kind of convergence between lock and key, not matter how poorly matched the locks and keys are at first.  It ends up being an elaborate exercise in convergence to a random target.  When it is done, it generates a sort of DNA signature that, wouldn't you know it, can be painted green and stuck on a wall, and in the sense that its Shannon information can be used for information models like 'computational depth' and 'randomness deficiency', it can be said to whistle too.   

The Gryphon thinks the herring riddle is unfair.

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