December 17, 2005

Seeing Patterns Through Filters 

Humans are hardwired to see patterns, even where there is none. His happens because recognizing patterns has such a big practical utility to outweigh the cost of being wrong from time to time. Of course this is a large-scale, long-term trend: in single cases, seeing a pattern that does not actually exist, or recognizing the wrong one, can have very serious consequences.

A classical case of pattern-finding with all its drawbacks is the intellectual exercise known as "connecting the dots". The main problem with this approach is that a sufficiently large set of dots can be connected in any arbitrary pattern. Much like the constellations in the night sky: there are no real reasons to combine stars in one specific pattern instead of another. So, one drunken night several years ago I saw the unprecedented Schlong Constellation*.

On the serious side, simply finding a pattern among dots does not mean it is really there; one has to show at least some correlations - even better causation - among the dots.

Filters are devices widely used in many fields. The most easy to understand are coloured filters used in photography or lightning, which allow only light of a certain colour to pass. The Meteosat weather satellite filters images for the water vapour wavelengths. An extreme example are the monochromators employed for spectroscopy, that can select a very narrow bandwidth of light or infrared radiation.
Various kind of filters are used in many fields of science and technology anyway: it is possible to filter any electrical signal in order to exclude certain frequencies, using hardware and also software tools. Good sunglasses filter the invisible but damaging ultraviolet radiation without exceedingly reducing overall brightness.

From the standpoint of information theory, filtering is equivalent to excluding some information. However, filtering usually is done to eclude noise and thus improve the signal - or to exclude information that would be redundant or simply overload the processing capabilities (coloured filters are deliberately used in photography for special effects). But one must be aware that filtering can cause the loss of valuable information - often, it's a tradeoff between the information you need and how much you can process in a given time (and this fact is one of the main causes of intelligence mishaps).

Now, let's suppose we have a huge set of dots of different colours (on a black background). People looking at them through different filters will see only definite subsets of the whole, and still be free to connect dots in many different patterns.

This is why some people see Pajams Media as a propaganda enterprise set up by "BushCo", while others (me included) see it as an amateurish business endeavour.
And also, when Zarqawi's jihadis blew up a birthday party in Jordan** a commenter at Cold Fury suggested that it was an Israeli plot to get rid of three Palestinian officials that were among the victims. Instead, I think that it was Zarqawi's bloodlust - or in second place he taking part in inter-palestinian strife.

*La Costellazione della Bega.
**When the Americans bombed a jihadis' wedding party in Iraq near the Syrian border, there were folks ragging about it to no end. Al-Zarqawi does the same or even worse, and the folks cited above keep studiously silent.


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