Hello dear readers! Dr. Poo is vacationing in South Africa over the summer to prepare for his lectures on the fascinating properties of the Universe in the fall. I haven’t written a blog in well over a year, and I thought it was the time to release some brand new ideas to you, my loyal public. Keep in mind that the ideas in this particular blog have little to do with theoretical physics and more to do with how we interpret the things we see, which will be a valuable knowledge for you all this fall. I hope that you enjoy reading this blog, stop to think about the ideas presented, and question those same ideas. Enjoy!
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Not too long ago I met a printer named Hubert. Even though he was pretty quiet at our first encounter, I was sure that he was a good guy. Several days later, my friend Erin, companion of this printer, came to me with a problem. She needed to print out a report for her class, but Hubert had delivered what appeared to be utter hogwash. I took a good look at the gibberish Hubert spewed and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. There was no clear indication of what each of the symbols meant on its own, what each string of symbols meant together, or even which way I should read the text! I brought it home, put on my brown Henschel Deerstalker hat, bit down on my pipe, and began my investigation.
Each string of symbols had the form of Fig. 1.
Fig. 1: A string of symbols
Since I could identify each symbol to some human use, I identified this typeset as Unicode 5.0, which includes almost every typeset language and many strange characters like the ones seen in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2: A chart of miscellaneous symbols in Unicode 5.0
I visited the Unicode website to see if there was any underlying meaning of these symbols (since most of them looked like the ones in Fig. 2!). You can see from the figure above that there is a sequence of numbers assigned to each symbol. I took that into consideration and mapped each sequence of numbers to English letters and proper punctuation. (I made the assumption that Hubert wanted to communicate in English since Erin’s paper was in English.) The As and Bs and Cs and so on are hexadecimal numbers, if you haven’t seen them before, and they map to 10s and 11s and 12s and so on. I tried out the scheme, and much to my dismay the only English word I could make out was “a”, which isn’t much of an English word. I tried taking all the 26s that appeared in the chart (which was part of the number key to every symbol!) to be Zs, like in the mapping 1 -> A, 2 -> B, and so on, but then it just sounded like Hubert was sleeping. I attempted every deviation from this cryptology scheme, such as 1 -> B, 2 -> C, and so on; 1 -> C, 2 -> D, and so on; and so on. It looked hopeless.
The best scheme I came up with was to ignore the 26 and assume it was just the symbol that said, “This is a character,” much like the 0x in a memory address and its contents on your computer. Memory addresses and their contents on your computer look like 0x8130 and 0x00000005, respectively, where the 0x just means, “This is a hexadecimal number.” After applying that idea and cycling through the cryptology, I finally made a significant word out of Hubert’s rant. “Anatomy”. Granted, it was in the middle of two other words that made no sense at all, but it was the best I came up with. That scheme also produced really cool sequences of letters that I don’t remember offhand, but they were something like, “Anyuuuuleoyuuuucszluop::”. I delivered it back to Erin, totally convinced Hubert was speaking just nonsense, with the exception of “anatomy”. There was nothing more I could do.
Could there be more meaning to Hubert’s message? Could I have overlooked the simple idea that there might be another decryption scheme that shows his words were just the words of Erin’s paper? Why would I assume Hubert was even trying to say anything at all, when it could have just been a huge error in his hardware?
I will answer these questions in reverse order.
Before we look more deeply into what Hubert was trying to say, we first need to understand what a message is. You may think, reader, “I know what messages are, I see them all the time on MySpace and Facebook,” or “This is a waste of time,” or “I’m leaving now,” (in which case, thanks for stopping by!), but there are elements to the messages we see every day that we overlook. I borrow Douglas Hofstadter’s notion of three components to a message: the frame, outer, and inner messages of the message.
The frame message tells the receiver of the message that the message is indeed a message of interest to the receiver. Without so much word repetition, I mean to say that the frame message says, “This is a message. Can you figure out what it means?” What are some examples? A tower of smoke rising from the distance, an aroma in the breeze, and a piece of paper in a bottle are all frame messages. You may also think of the 0x in a memory address and what I thought to be the 26s in Hubert’s messages to be the frame messages for the memory addresses and the symbols in the message, respectively. Frame messages for the words you read on the computer in front of you are the spaces around each one, which say, “There is a sequence of symbols in between the places where there are no symbols.” You may also find a frame message in the title of this blog (even though I don’t have to put it that explicitly for you to understand it is a blog). Frame messages pique an observer’s interest and ask the observer to look further into the message. “To understand the frame message is to recognize the need for a decoding-mechanism,” Hofstadter writes.
That’s where the outer message comes in. The outer message is a set of triggers that tells the observer how to go about decoding the message. These triggers are most certainly not explicit, though. For instance, I can’t tell you how to read English in English. Similarly, I can’t tell you how to decode the following sentence in the sentence.
Fig. 3: A mysterious sentence
There is a frame message here. It should tell you, “I have many strings of symbols separated by spaces. Decode me.” Now for its outer message. You might recognize a pattern in it. You may notice that the character appears often in the preceding sentence. You may assume that the sentence is in English but in another typeset, since the author knows only two languages well and mostly practices in one of them, English. From there, you know that the letter E appears often in English. (Eight times in the previous sentence and 11 times in this sentence!) So you can assume that is the (lowercase) letter E in this font. Great! Now we have 51 more to decode (including capitalized letters but not including punctuation), and it will be much harder. Especially since the other letters in English appear less frequently and in a variety of ways, and that many of the words in the strange sentence have the same length as other words in the sentence. We notice all these qualities about the sentence because of our entire upbringing as human beings who have the ability to recognize patterns and remember properties of language. The message isn’t decoding itself; rather, the context in which the message is presented stimulates your brain into the discovery of methods to decode it. Hofstadter again writes, “To understand the outer message is to build, or know how to build, the correct decoding mechanism for the inner message.”
The last component is the easiest to understand, because it’s the part that actually conveys information. The inner message is the part of the message you will actually remember. As you read this blog, you won’t remember grammar mechanics and the learning of every single word you see in front of you (at least I sure hope you don’t!), because all of it is ingrained into your brain and serves as the context for the outer message. You certainly won’t remember that when you looked at the words on the screen in front of you, you unconsciously thought, “Ah! These are WORDS!” Instead, you remember the content. Unless of course you’ve fallen asleep already. But then you wouldn’t have read this far and I can make fun of you. Na-na-na-na-NA-na. Anyway, that is all there is to the inner message; it is the information that needs to be conveyed in the message.
So why would I assume Hubert was trying to say anything at all? I recognized that there were trains of symbols separated by blank spaces on the paper he spit out. I took in the frame message which said, “I have many different but repeating symbols arranged in trains with spaces in between them. Figure me out!” I’ve also been through other situations where a mysterious message pops up at me begging for me to decipher it. My friend Andrew used to try to trick me when we exchanged messages on AOL Instant Messenger. I know he did it to frustrate me. I would ask a question, and he would respond back in a very strange font. Here’s a sample conversation (that never actually happened):
Fig. 4: An intelligent conversation
Conversations like that one happened repeatedly. Needless to say, figuring out what mysterious symbols mean is something I have to do.
Could I have overlooked the fact that the words presented on the page of Hubert’s strange declaration could have just been my friend’s paper she was writing? I have reason to believe they weren’t. One page of the strange document had only a symbol in the upper right. If anything, that struck me as Hubert’s way of laughing at whoever dared to interpret him. My decoding scheme said that meant “ef”. Unless Erin meant to write only “ef” on one page of her report, I’m confident that Hubert wasn’t dishing out what she wrote.
What was he saying then? Before we come to an answer to that question, take a look again at my introductory paragraph. The one that isn’t in sans serif font. Are you able to read it? Or the mysterious sentence in the middle of the blog? Or Andrew’s instant messages back to me? We covered a method to go about decoding what these messages mean when we discussed outer messages, but the process is arduous. Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B script in 1952 after a painstaking amount of work with grid systems that matched symbols that seemed to match grammatically. He didn’t have the luxury that the decipherers of Egyptian hieroglyphics had with the Rosetta stone, a tablet that wrote the same statement in hieroglyphics, Demotic (another Egyptian script), and in classical Greek. Even the process with the Rosetta stone was about as easy as teaching a cat to use the toilet. How could I expect you, the reader, to figure the meaning behind what the strange scripts without the use of a remarkable tablet? I don’t.
Where did this come from?! It one-ups the Rosetta stone! It tells you exactly what each letter in Wingdings corresponds to in regular English! Keep in mind, reader, outer messages are never this explicit. But I was lucky enough to find this tablet for your convenience, so that you can now read the mystical script (if you haven’t already figured out how to).
Hubert hasn’t produced enough clues yet as to what he really means. In the context of my upbringing as an English-speaking human being, I have no idea what kinds of crazy logic Printerspeak entails. So, as far as I’m concerned, what he said was horsehockey. However, my scheme did produce the word “anatomy”. Could that be a clue within the message? As if an endless series of decryption puzzles plagues whoever tries to read tries to understand printers?
A scarier question arises. What if there is no intrinsic meaning to what Hubert is saying? It seems like the only way to truly understand him is to be a printer in Printerland. We need some kind of rule to tell us how to interpret what he is saying, much like the Wingdings Tablet I’ve provided you. But say for a minute that the Wingdings Tablet looked like this:
At least it seems that there is the same character for character mapping taking place. But there are two problems. I can assure you that the symbols at the left of each line are letters in Wingdings, but we don’t know what the right hand side could be. And there is a fallacy with both tablets: we don’t even know if “=” in this tablet really means “equal to”! We need another tablet to tell us how to read the tablet. The succession could continue as well, with more tablets that need more tablets to help decipher them, possibly to an infinite degree!
Think it sounds too theoretical? You’re right. There can’t be an infinite succession of meaning as far as humans go because humans have physical brains. With brains that are governed by fundamental laws of physics, there is a definite end to levels of understanding. For example, when you smell an aroma, chemicals wafting from the source trigger receptors in your nose that send a signal to your brain which is wired with electricity which is governed by the laws of electricity which are further governed by the four fundamental forces of the Universe. The frame message will come through because of our physical nature, and our evolution will also tell us how to infer the outer message of the aroma. Smell is a sense firmly rooted in human memory, and we can quickly associate smells of foods we like, animal excrement we hate, and places we enjoy to parts of our memory and then quickly react to the aromas. In other words, you don’t need a message to tell you how to read the message to tell you how to read the message, and so on. Brains work without being told how to work.
In the case of the series of the second kind of Wingdings Tablets above, only a few of the tablets would be needed to see that “=” does in fact mean “equal to” (assuming they all had the form of the second Wingdings Tablet I presented). Your brain can immediately associate that pattern. I’ve already mentioned that you can assume Wingdings is just English with a different font. And it looks like the document is laterally linear, where one symbol corresponds to another, and vertically linear, since English symbols are presented in order of the alphabet. We could say the first symbol on the left of the new Wingdings Tablet is the letter A then, and we could continue down to decipher the whole thing. In that sense, we can beat this infinite hierarchy of meaning by using knowledge already ingrained into our head from biological and societal evolution!
Consider this scenario. You are a sentient being who lives in a world hundreds of light-years away from Earth. A mysterious flat, round, shiny object comes to your planet. It has a hole in the center, and makes many colors come off it when it reflects light. There are no objects like it on your planet. The simple fact that the disc is well-formed and that it came from somewhere else brings to your mind that it could contain information. Now say that you have an appliance that cleans your equivalent of a toilet. It spins the disc, shines its laser onto it, and the disc reflects the light back into the device. You throw the disc down onto the ground because nothing seems to happen.
This race of beings has learned to speak telepathically and has evolved not to have any auditory senses. What you threw down was a compact disc that made musical sounds when your device spun it, but because you had evolved not to hear, its inner message (music) is untouchable to you because you can’t understand the outer message (the series of brain impulses caused by hearing structured sounds). Even if you could hear, you may not derive the same meaning from the music as a human would, since much of the meaning in music is based on emotion, which your species may not have. This makes it seem that the meaning has been lost out of context.
Now consider this scenario. You are a grain of sand on that planet. When the disc was thrown to the ground, it flung you up and you landed right on the reflective part of it. Light from the star of that planet reflects off the disc and the disc sends different wavelengths of light at you. You, the grain, sit there and absorb and reflect the radiation. By the standards of Planet Earth, humans would say the grain of sand isn’t intelligent and isn’t capable of deriving any meaning from the disc. Could it be that our view on intelligence is too biased? Could it be that the sand has a form of intelligence that derives meaning from the disc in ways we simply can’t understand because of our chauvinistic view of how to derive meaning? I leave this question open-ended.
In this regard, our method of defining the layers of a message applies only to human brains. We have evolved to perceive messages in this manner in such a way that works with our kind of intelligence. Today we model artificial intelligence to work like human intelligence, the only kind we can really understand. There could be a more general kind of intelligence that isn’t bound to physical brains, and in that regard, levels of meaning could be infinitely more complicated than those which humans could understand. I’m now convinced of this: Hubert has a different kind of intelligence that I can’t understand, and that if I really want to understand him, I’ve got to rethink how one can derive meaning from messages. If you think of any ways to go about this, dear reader, I invite you to leave a comment on this blog with your ideas. Until then, I’m going to put away may cap and pipe, and chauvinistically say that Hubert is very weird.