Information and the laws of thermodynamics

[27 August 2008]

Liam Quin has been spending most of his blogging effort recently on his site, but recently he posted a thoughtful piece on his ‘other blog’, In search of XMLence, on the relations among standard off-the-shelf vocabularies, customized vocabularies, what widely deployed systems can understand, and what people want to be able to say. (“The Super Information Archipelago”, 26 August 2008.)

One net result: if you use a vocabulary customized to your application, you get a better fit, at some cost in effort (or money) and immediate interchangeability (or interoperability) with other vocabularies. If you use standard one-size-fits-all vocabularies, you get free interoperability with others, at the cost of a poorer fit for the work you want to do in the first place. Liam imagines the situation of users of custom vocabularies as a kind of archipelago of islands of rich information in a sea of, ah, less rich information, sometimes connected by good bridges.

Something in the tradeoff (perhaps it’s the image of the islands) reminds me of the observation someone made long ago when they were teaching me about the three laws of thermodynamics. This was the kind of conversation where there was a little less emphasis on the laws as formulated in physics books than on the popular paraphrase:

  1. You can’t win.
  2. You can’t break even.
  3. You can’t get out of the game.

If the laws of thermodynamics say that entropy always increases, someone asked, then how is it possible that in some situations entropy seems to decrease, and order to increase? Many of us spend a lot of our time trying to build systems to organize things or information; if the universe is stacked against us, how is that we ever have even the illusion of having succeeded? (And is this a good excuse for not even trying to organize my desk?)

Entropy does increase, was the answer, but only in the universe as a whole — not necessarily at every point in the universe uniformly. You can increase the order, and decrease the entropy, in a restricted portion of the universe — just not in the universe as a whole.

It sheds light from a different angle on the issues of data islands and walled gardens.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One thought on “Information and the laws of thermodynamics

  1. Michael,

    The connection here is nice.

    Of course, a relative and local decrease in entropy is possible because energy can be concentrated. Energy in the system as a whole does not increase. But it can be applied to introducing and maintaining a boundary; and once there is a boundary, more energy can be put to reducing entropy within it.

    Being one of the bridge-builders or ferry pilots of Liam’s archipelago, I am sympathetic to his finding local vocabularies attractive. One reason I like local vocabularies, in contrast to one-size-fits-all standards, is that a local vocabulary usually does a better job of differentiating itself and (if it is reasonably well designed and used) of marking its own semantic categories. A standard vocabulary doesn’t actually reconcile different islands; as often as not, it conceals where they are usefully and importantly different. And in my experience, it’s frequently easier to come to S and Sigma and say “Ah, the S and the Sigma, they’re the same” than it is to come to H and Eta and have to discern “Oh, it looks like an H, but it’s not”.

    This relates to your point since it comes down to where you expend your energy. One approach is to say “if we only had a standard vocabulary, all our problems would vanish”. This might akin to damming the oceans and building roads to connect the cities of our archipelago, and then continuing to spend to keep the dikes intact and the roads dry. While yes, this solves the n-squared problem — no matter which two islands we wish to connect, now we can do so on dry ground — the maintenance costs might be high, especially given how we suppose we shouldn’t have to pay them. (This also relates to your analogy at Balisage comparing standards development to barn-raising and farming: We thought that holding the tides back would be a mere matter of smart design, not that the effort would have to be sustained indefinitely.

    Now don’t get me wrong: I am a fan of standard vocabularies for all kinds of reasons. (Nor do I forget that the reason we have a navigable sea at all is that we have a standard syntax and tools for handling it.) But making it possible to communicate between groups who, for all that, don’t necessarily need or care to share what they have to say in that form, isn’t what recommends the effort of aligning to a standard as compared to building a local language — at any rate not in the general case. Rather, I think the energy is often much more efficiently and usefully applied building bridges and boats, and learning and teaching how to build them. Entropy may not be reduced as completely. But then, a total reduction of entropy isn’t what’s wanted either, is it?

    After all, as the poet said, One Law for the Lion and Ox is Tyranny.

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