Useful Concepts

By ‘concepts’ here, I mean something like ‘cognitive shorthands’. They function much like the childrens toy with the holes of different shapes: you test situations on them and find the concept that fits to provide the most clarity. Concepts like these can help to digest complex problems quickly and accurately. Recently, I’ve come across a couple that keep popping up, and I was hoping others could offer more.

-The Signal to Noise Ratio
The signal to noise ratio (S/N) is the ratio of desired content to undesired content. Listening to a CD, the signal would be the music you want to hear on it; the noise would be feedback, graininess, speaker-buzz, anything that reduces the quality of the listening experience. It’s a technical concept, but it is widely applicable and in numerous process it is something you want to keep in mind.
Recently, it came up in relation to Wikipedia. Wikipedia has a project to group pages under subjects. Part of the purpose of this is to identify pages that don’t relate to anything, or pages whose content is not useful (for any number of reasons). I was asked why it’s important to address pages like these; wouldn’t it be better to add new content instead, or to focus on projects that generate new content. But the S/N concept makes it easy to grasp why that’s not the case. If we simply kept adding new Wikipedia pages, we could maximize signal. But the quality of the information is determined by both the amount of signal and the amount of noise. If we allow noise, we lose signal.
The concept applies to any transfer of information. The wikipedia article refers to the idea in reference to message boards, which is something that’s come up at least once before. But the idea is even more widely applicable: every sentence contains signal and noise. Since information is a huge part of life, the concept can be a useful match for a number of information sharing situations, from conversations to committees.

-Evolution by Natural Selection
I don’t mean this in the biological sense. By this I mean any complex system that has random variation and selective pressure, and ‘life’ and ‘death’ (scare quotes because the terms are metaphoric: A pattern ‘dies’ when it ceases to repeat, for instance). Let me give an example of a non-biological application of this.
I work at a medical school. There was a student with a really cool name, lets say it was ‘Johnny Danger’. Before the student arrived, everyone was convinced that he would be a punk rocker with no shirt and a bandana, but when he showed up, it turned out he was really shy, soft-spoken, and socially awkward. My theory: we should have expected that, becuase there is a sort of natural selection going on. People with cool names have an easier time being cool and doing cool things. People expect it of them, and become receptive audiences for any measure of coolness. In order for a student to get to medical school (an assumably uncool place to be) with a name like Johnny Danger, he would have to be especially uncool.
It’s important to note that this is not to say that he became uncool because of his name. Rather, we look at the set of all people with cool names. If having a cool name provides negative selective pressure against being a nerd (or being perceived as a nerd), and getting into medical requires that you be a nerd (or that you be perceived as a nerd), then the people with cool names will be extra-nerdy in other areas to make up for it.
This is an absurd example, not least because it doesn’t really do anything. But if we apply the sort of thinking used to systems like school and jobs and economies, we can get useful results.
Another example is the “Dilbert Principle”: People get promoted until they reach a job they aren’t expecially good at, and then they get stuck there. The selection pressure is on people who are mediocre at their jobs. People who are great get promoted, people who suck get fired, and people who are so-so stay on. The situation is certainly more complicated, but it’s useful to acknowledge that such a pressure exists, to ensure that competing pressures (such as an abundance of job applicants, spurned buy high salaries) encourage people that are great at their jobs.

These are just two poorly articulated examples of useful concepts that can apply to a broad range of situations and can provide insight into what’s going on. Does anyone else have others?

Modal Realism.

The full body without organs.

Utilitarianism, though it’s success rate is subject to change.

This sort of comment is only too obvious, but for fun,

[size=150]TV Static (horizontal) photo[/size]
David E. Stone … chive.html

How do we decide what is the signal and what is the noise? What when the noise were the frame of the signal, a silhouette? Or, in Stone’s show, what when the noise is the signal? The whole night sky, before constellations… Etcetera and so on.

Perhaps a useful one to include would be the concept of ‘concept’ - a term often used but with adequate understanding? No joke intended!

Step functions. I read about them once a long time ago when I tried to read some stuff on chaos theory. It might have been in Godel Escher Bach but I’m not sure. I had another simpler book too that I don’t remember the title of.

The real-world example given was that if you drive to work and you leave at 7:40 and you arrive at 8:00 it took 20 minutes to get there. But if you leave one minute later (7:41) you hit a certain red light and because you hit that red light you also hit another red light etc. and instead of arriving at work 1 minute late, you arrive 5 minutes late.

Also, Relativity, in a basic sense. Like how each half of the human brain can work on its own, but put them together and their functions specialize. Or two fairly self-sufficient people get together and become a couple and they start to specialize. For instance if the man is just a little bit less talkative than the woman (hetero example :-" ), over time the man talks less and less in joint party conversations and becomes known as the man who doesn’t say much. But without his partner he does.

I think of both step functions and relativity all the time when I try to make sense of various things in life.

Smears, I said ‘useful’. It’s always fun and games with you.

Impious, in your first post do you mean ‘holism’? If you do, I would agree, that’s a useful concept.
In your second post, I don’t know what you mean by ‘infernal’.

Wonderer, Utilitarianism is pretty specific, isn’t it? It really only applies to morality. Do you mean applying the same sort of reasoning elsewhere? I’d call that pragmatism, and I think that’s a very useful concept.

Vanya, I guess ‘signal’ is stuff you want, and ‘noise’ is stuff you don’t. Maybe the question of whether the painting is signal or noise depends on what you’re looking for in art. But I don’t know if the whole signal/noise thing applies to things like art. Art isn’t practical enough for a signal/noise ratio.

Remark, a set that contains itself!? I swear I didn’t intend that. Most definitions are useful, though. Meaning is useful. Language is useful. But all that’s sort of bland when you compare it to Evolution By Natural Selection. :wink:

Anon, I freaking love you.
I think GEB does talk about step functions, when it deals with sets like the Fibonacci numbers. I think the general idea of self-reference is a useful concept, it comes up everywhere. Just look at Remark’s comment.
I would have called ‘relativity’ something like ‘polarization’ or ‘galvinization’. It’s interesting to consider the monikers we use to label the concepts, and how they affect our understanding and application of the concepts. For example, ‘evolution…’ could be called ‘emergent properties’, and that might even be a better and more broad description. Michael Shermer compares evolution to the economy, and says both are emergent, rather than that the economy is a form of evolution. Why ‘relativity’?

I wub you too. :sunglasses: It’s hard to do better than natural selection!

In hindsight I might have called it specialization rather than relativity. Relativity is a very broad umbrella concept in Buddhism, and I think I had that broader concept in mind. I would say specialization (or polarization or galvinization) is a specific subset of that. I was just browsing parts of Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight” the other day, which reminded me of the whole left brain/right brain thing.

Actually I just remembered the whole feedback thing in chaos theory. Positive and negative feedback. That’s a pretty useful concept for me also. Maybe it’s just the age I read it at - those basic ideas stuck with me, even though I generally don’t have a clue when it comes to complex math. I never did finish those books. :slight_smile:

pragmatism is better than utilitarianism… numebr values are limited. :-k

but i’d agree (it’s the shorthand i was after)

The concept of shit pointing

As a rule, Don’t point out the shit in someone elses backyard if you’ve got shit in your own.


Carleas–I thought this concept was known as the Peter Principle. Is it really called the Dilbert principle now?

What about gestalt-- the concept that organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts? Figure/Ground --the idea that contrast is necessary for perception. Whatever is not the object of attention becomes the background for the object that is.

*Dynamic equilibria / Red Queen scenarios / co-evolution / sexual selection

*Social topography / game theory / economic theory / pico (neural) economics (intertemporal bargaining)

*Probability / power laws / criticality vs. metastable states

All these go a long way to explaining human nature and behaviour, both individual and grouped.

The KISS method is a simple concept and applies readily to many things.
This applies to us all when we start going overboard and it is not obvious to us that simplicity would be better. Our zeal will make us stupid. So, KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid.

‘In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari eventually differentiate between three kinds of body without organs: cancerous, empty, and full. The empty BwO is described as “catatonic” because it is completely de-organ-ized; all flows pass through it freely, with no stopping, and no directing. Even though any form of desire can be produced on it, the empty BwO is non-productive. The full BwO is the healthy BwO; it is productive, but not petrified in its organ-ization. The cancerous BwO is caught in a pattern of endless reproduction of the self-same pattern.’ - Wikipedia, with ammendment

As per the dictionary definition: ‘Of hell; hellish.’

Wording underpants: What you’re doing every time you make a truth statement that’s not true. Usage: ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s wording underpants.’

Feedback loops.

Control isn’t domination. An example I read was of a coin sorting machine that sorts coins with progressively larger holes. Each coin runs down the track until it reaches a hole it can fit through, and at that point it falls through the hole into a container of other same sized coins. Though the coin sorter controls the end position of the coins, it doesn’t do so based on anything other than the coin’s own size. So really, the coin determines where the coin ends up.
If we imagine the brain as a function that takes sense inputs x and puts them through a process that results in decision y, the result is just as much due to the nature of the inputs as to the process used. Moreover, if the brain’s decision making process developed mostly in response to previous inputs, the the brain really has very little to do with the output. The sense inputs are simply interacting with past sense inputs to create the decision.

People succeed to their level of incompetence. If you feel you might be reaching it, back off and refuse promotion.
Other than that, these are all just maxim that represent a sort of social understanding. The dictionary is full of concepts, but empty of advice.

The Light of Truth

If I understand you correctly, this should be one. It differentiates that which exists from that which doesn’t. The absence of light is the absence of Truth. For instance, it applies to heat as well as to light and Truth themselves. Darkness is the absence of light, cold is the absence of heat, evil is the absence of good and lies are the absence of Truth. It could have been written the Light, Heat and Good of Truth, but that’s less elegant, less familiar and cumbersome.

This may qualify or it may be only a analogy, and in any case it’s usefulness will be limited to those who don’t consider it controversial.