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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Kermit the Frog, Maximum Entropy Production, Etc.




While in Shanghai on a business trip recently, in a restaurant eating some terrifyingly spicy fish hot-pot with a couple of my Aidyia colleagues, I noticed the radio was playing a cover version of a song from the original Muppet Movie, “The Rainbow Connection”…. 

As often happens, this got me thinking….

This is not remotely an original observation, but it’s one of these cliches that has struck me over and over again during my life: There’s a certain beauty to the process of seeking, which often exceeds the satisfaction of finding what one is looking for.  This is related to why so many people enjoy the process of entrepreneurship — of starting new things and chasing success.  The feeling of increasing success is exciting, the ups and downs as one moves toward the goal and then toward and then away etc. in complex patterns are exciting….  Actually achieving the goal may give an oomph of satisfaction but then the oomph goes away and one craves the joy of the process of seeking again.  Of course there are always new things to seek though — one can seek to grow one’s company bigger and bigger, etc.  Many people enjoy seducing new men or women more than actually having an ongoing relationship with one whom they’ve captured, but I’ve never quite felt that way; I guess seeking a really good ongoing relationship is enough of a challenging quest for me, given my  peculiar and in some ways difficult personality…

This point struck me hard as a kid when I was watching the Muppet Movie and saw Kermit the Frog singing the “The Rainbow Connection”


Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what's on the other side
Rainbows are visions
But only illusions
And rainbows have nothing to hide

So we've been told
And some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me
 
Who said that every wish
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star
Somebody thought of that
And someone believed it
And look what it's done so far

What's so amazing
That keeps us stargazing
And what do we think we might see
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

All of us under its spell, we know that it's probably magic

Have you been half asleep?
And have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name;
Is this the sweet sound
That called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same

I've heard it too many times to ignore it
It's something that I'm supposed to be
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

Kermit’s plaintive froggy voice moved my emotions and I have to say it still does, way more than the typical ballad sung by a human pop star…   What occurred to me as a child as I watched him sing (maybe not the first time I saw the movie — we had it on video-tape when I was a kid and I heard the song more than once!), was that he had found his Rainbow Connection right there, inside the song — He was seeking something else, something beyond himself and his life, but actually inside the beauty of the song, and the feeling of singing the song, and the connection between him and the singer — and the songwriters and puppeteers behind the Kermit persona — and the various listeners of the song such as myself, and the people singing and humming the song around the world at various times and places … this whole melange of feeling and creation and expression and interaction obviously WAS the “Rainbow Connection” — a connection between different minds and voices, sounds waving through the air and colored pictures flashing on screens decoded from electromagnetic waves cast through the air via antennas … a diversity of colors beyond the humanly perceived rainbow and including all sorts of other frequencies ….  When I listened to the song I was basking in the reality of the Rainbow Connection and so was the imaginary and real Kermit.  Of course as a child I didn’t articulate it exactly this way but less-crystallized versions of these thoughts verged through my mind (as probably has happened with many other listeners to this same song, in another aspect of the Good Old Rainbow Connection).   And I could only suspect that somewhere in the back of his good-natured though not that bright little froggy mind, Kermit realized that the beauty was really in the process of seeking and not in the goal — that the beauty and connection and joy he was after, were already there in the the song he was singing about the quest for these things, and in the life and love he expressed that constituted and animated this quest itself….

So, well, all hail Kermit !!! ... what else?

Similar ideas have occurred to me recently in an utterly different context…

A different twist on the aesthetic primacy of process over goal is provided by the Maximum Entropy Production Principle, which hypothesizes that, in many circumstances, complex systems evolve along paths of *maximum entropy production*.   The fine print is complex, but there's a lot of evidence mathematical, conceptual and physical in favor of this idea, e.g.:


This is rather fascinating — it suggests we can think about the wonderful complexity of life, nature, humanity and so forth as, in some measure, resulting from a rush to achieve the goal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics — heat death — as rapidly as possible!!   Of course this isn’t really the total story of complexity and life and all that, but it seems to be an important ingredient — and it’s certainly a poignant one.   The goal in this case is a humanly repellent and disturbing one: the loss of complex form and the advent of stultifyingly uniform random movement in the universe.  The path followed in working toward this goal is a deep, rich, tremendously beautiful one.  

Whether you’re seeking the Rainbow Connection or Ultimate Heat Death, it seems that the process of optimization, in many cases, has a great deal of power to create beauty and structure and feeling.   The process of seeking a goal in the face of limitations and constraints forces a tradeoff between the degree of goal fulfillment and the constraints — and it’s this dance that leads to so much structure and beauty.  

In the case of a song like the Rainbow Connection, the constraints are about time (people get bored if a song is too long) and human comprehension (it’s hard to express a universal human feeling in a way that humans can universally appreciate, given the diversity of our mind-sets and cultures) and the physics of sound waves and the limitations of the human ear and so on.  In the case of Jimi Hendrix, whose music I prefer to even that of Kermit, it was about Hendrix’s musical creativity and the sounds he heard in his head interacting with the constraints of what could be done with the electric guitar and the amplification and production equipment at the time.

In the case of thermodynamics, the core constraints are the “laws” of mechanics and temporal continuity.   The end goal is Ultimate Heat Death, perhaps, but a physical system can only change so much at each point in time.   The physical system is trying to maximize entropy production, yeah, but it can only do so in a manner consistent with the laws of physics, which — among many other constraints — only allow a certain pace of change over time.  Figuring out how to maximize entropy production in the context of obeying the laws of physics and what they say about the relation between matter and spacetime — this is the interplay that helps yield the wonderful complexity we see all around us. 

If the constraints were too relaxed, the goal might get approached too quickly and surely, and there would be no beauty on the path along the way.  If the goal and the constrants were both weak, things might just drift around quasi-randomly in less than interesting ways.  If the constraints were too strong there might just be no interesting ways for the overall objective function to get pursued (be it heat death or writing a great song or whatever).   Constraints that are strong but not too strong, imposed on a suitable objective function, are what yield wonderful complexity.  Lots of analogies arise here, from raising kids to the evolution of species.

To view it in terms of optimization theory: Constraints take a simple objective function and turn it into a complex objective function with multiple extrema and subtle dependencies all across the fitness landscape.  These subtleties in the objective function lead to subtle, intricate partial solutions — and when there is a continuity constraint, so that newly posed solutions must constitute slight variations on previously posed solutions, the only way to dramatically maximize the core objective function is to pass through a variety of these partial solutions.

The ultimate bliss and glorious spectral togetherness Kermit was seeking — or that my childhood self thought he was seeking — or whatever — is an amazing, thrilling vision for sure.  But the process of gradually moving toward this ultimate cosmic vision, in a manner consistent with the constraints of human and froggy life, and the continuity constraint in moving through possible solutions, is what yields such subtle, interesting and moving forms as we see, hear and are in this world right now…



OK OK, that’s all pretty fast and loose, I know.  Hey, I’m just musing while listening to a song, not proving a bloody theorem.  My petty human mind, not yet achieved ultimate superintelligence, has got to churn through stuff like this day by day to gradually muck toward a fuller understanding of the world.  It’s a process ;-) ….

As Captain Beefheart said, “a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous — fast and bulbous, got me?”

4 comments:

Peter Lynch said...

This seems very much related to the Constructal law, another observation of thermodynamic systems which has recently come to be widely accepted within the scientific community. It states that; for a finite-size system to persist in time it reconfigures itself in such a way as to allow easier access for the currents that flow through it, approximating optimal flow over time. Adrian Bejan exhaustively documented this phenomenon in e awesome book design in nature. If you haven't heard of this do some digging Ben, I think you will be intrigued :]

Eric Shuss said...

I always wondered why I loved Kermit and that song so much. Thank you for tying that to the universal flow and meaning. Loved the post but the squid in a bag caused me much confusion and I think I pulled a brain muscle.

Tim Tyler said...

The principle of maximum entropy production often suggests a bleak long-term future in which our descendants burn through all the resources that they can find as quickly as possible. It is worth noting, however, that not all creatures behave in such a manner. Some spend most of their lives actively conserving resources. Desert plants are an example of this. These spend most of their lives conserving resources. Only occasionally do they spend and splurge. With sufficient coordination, our descendants might do something similar.

One problem with spending all your resources as soon as you find them is that you have no reserves to draw on in times of stress or famine. Our descendants might well be able to anticipate stress and famine. Encountering aliens might be stressful - and there are not many resources to be found in the spaces between galaxies. So, if they can manage to avoid squandering their resources in internal squabbles, they would be wise to conserve some fraction of the available resources in anticipation of these sorts of situation.

With sufficient coordination and long term thinking, our descendants may be able to avoid the apparent resource splurge that the principle of maximum entropy production apparently predicts.

Anonymous said...

Them thar fooking entropic agents stol my fooking pencils - fookers!

http://arxiv.org/abs/1503.08130