Saturday, 26 March 2011

Channels of Communication

My mother brought both me and my brother up to be experimenters. She led by example: when I was born she was experimenting with the Borogradsky educational theories that were popular at the time. I grew up nearly fluent in Latin because that was all I heard at home, and when I went to school, unable to speak any language the teachers spoke, the teachers went to the Local Education Authority, who in turn went to my mother and suggested that she teach me a language that was spoken in the school. My teacher at the time struggled to learn a little Latin to make the transition easier, and told me at one point that she felt I'd been set back three years by my mother's efforts. I corrected her grammar, a little sadly, and she went away again looking hurt.
This became a recurring theme with my mother; I was taken into court-ordered custody when I was thirteen and severely malnourished. My brother had just died of mushroom poisoning, and while visiting him in the hospital the staff had spotted signs in me of both scurvy and pellagra. This was my mother's period of experimenting with inedible foods, and the eventual consensus was that I'd been getting eight times the RDA of wax and cardboard and if I weren't already a heavy-coffee drinker I would probably be dead too.
My mother promised to turn over a new leaf, and six months later won a court hearing to have me returned to her, though the judge presiding awarded me a small bursary to be paid to me directly in case my mother decided to experiment with some other inappropriate food source. As my mother had just read an article that suggested that it was possible to combine homeopathy with super-natural eating, this was a blessing that probably saved my life again. While she was boiling vegetables for eighteen hours to extract all their goodness, then diluting the vegetable water 600-fold to make super-vitality drinks I slipped off, at first to McDonald's, but later to places that served real food.
I received an email from her two days ago, which surprised me as we still live in the same house and talk to one another over breakfast. Her current experiment is fresh-fruit and we're both looking startlingly healthy. Her email read:
Shannon was right! I have an experimental algorithm that decodes Wikipedia discussions.
A second email some minutes later explained things, as it contained the algorithm and links to wikipedia so that I could see for myself.
Shannon is, of course, Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, who has some fairly interesting things to say about noisy channels and how to extract information from them. What my mother's algorithm did was to treat the wikipedia discussion page as a noisy channel and see if it could find any information in there. On many pages it concluded that the discussion was all noise and no content, and I found myself nodding in agreement every time.
But then there were the other pages, where the noise was concealing the words of a cabal intent on pushing their own agenda. The algorithm had identified five key editors, labeling them conspirators, whose seemingly adroit and maladroit comments on random topics were actually acute commentary on the pages that they were most interested in.
I wrote an email reply to my mother, and my finger hovered over the send key. Then it fell, depressing the key and sending the email. I had no idea if suggesting that she experiment on them was a good idea or not, but I was looking forward to watching and finding out.

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