Saturday, February 9, 2013

Signal to Noise Ratio

Imagine as it were, that you were facing the choice between leaping into a chasm with a glint of water below or hoping the root of the sapling was going to keep you hanging and the only thing that was running through your mind was the film of the Acapulco divers, diving. And then there are the huge waves that come crashing onto the beach and you are caught in the riptide as the water-roiled sand surrounds you as you tumble over and over. Or you are ready to jump out of the door of aircraft, you breath shallow and your heart thumping against your chest and you jump but the parachute gets caught on the door edge and there you are caught in the frenzy of a hurricane size breeze. 

These are the unfiltered signals that the brain plays out in the mind's eye every now and then. In dreams, in moments of reverie, in contemplation or at rest. These are the images filtered through the experiences of the day. They are Noise!

Ever happen to you?

Probably never happened to you, but it could? Hey these are the random thoughts that come pestering your mind as you try to relax. These are the random noises that prevent a coherence of thought.

Is it ever that one misconstrues real signal for noise?

Background Microwave Cosmic Radiation (BMCR)

Remember Penzias and Wilson (Nobel Prize winners 1978) who initially misconstrued the Big Bang chatter (Background microwave Cosmic Radiation or BMCR) for noise? Yeah, they did, but to their credit, they had the smarts to separate the bird poop error from the signal. Here the signal was the background noise!

But that is a rare story. More to reality are the signals that get drowned out by the noise.

Wall Street Trading

Ever hear about a guy named Jesse Livermore? Jesse Lauriston Livermore (July 26, 1877 – November 28, 1940)?

Well now here is a story for the ages. This guy had made a science of trading in Wall Street. At one time his net worth was in excess of $100 million. So what happened? Ah therein lies the story. There are books about his trading methods that I will glance at to keep this interesting but there is a lesson in this for all of us.

Let me begin with Jesse’s quote, “All through time, people have basically acted and reacted the same way in the market as a result of: greed, fear, ignorance, and hope. That is why the numerical formations and patterns recur on a constant basis.”
Oh! he had the human psyche very well understood and used it to his advantage.

While in Paris, where he lived a while, Jesse communicated with his broker on a weekly basis. He bought and sold stocks on the basis of rigid criteria that he himself had established. If the stock went below a predetermined value, his broker was to sell the stock immediately and if the stock remained above a predetermined value or “within the box” he stayed with it. So in all, he made few transactions. But the ones that he made and held onto rewarded him greatly. In 1905 and then again in 1929 he realized the oncoming economic collapse and shorted the market and made huge sums of money using his formulas.

Then he moved to New York, and that being in the proximity to the hub of economic activity, he got caught up in the day to day cries of the millions of reasons propounded by experts at what makes the Dow go up or down. He lost his fortune, got depressed and ultimately committed suicide. His net worth at the time of of his death was $5 million. He cried in his suicide note, "Ï cant do it anymore!"

Jesse as you might imagine, veered from his well thought out and successful form of trading and got caught up with the daily noise of Wall Street. In that loud and intense noise, he lost the signal. And without the signal, he was unable to navigate through the noise! Sad but true! The noise became the death of his dreams.


In medicine, (You are thinking, there he goes again, aren’t you?) there are equally potent examples of losing the signal for the noise. How many times have you heard, for instance, that alcohol is good for you and then simultaneously the opposite of that. Or that Vitamin D is beneficial against all sorts of diseases and then one by one negating all that. Or have you heard that coffee helps you fight against this and that cancer one day and the very next it is implicated in another cancer. Better yet now there are experts of observational studies that mock the science of probabilities and pronounce everyday things like, a longer index finger is associated with prostate cancer and the crease in your ear is associated with heart disease or, and this one takes the cake, high carbohydrate diet makes you slim. 

This last one comes from the days of the food “Pyramid” that the heart experts were claiming as the health-nirvana and then it all changed to the food “Plate.” Oh well!

Our ignorance is advanced not by real science but by the manipulation of it. You might not remember that back in 1893 smoking was considered a cure for bronchitis and Hollywood “doctors” posed in campaigning for brands of cigarettes.

These historical references are the depictions of the noise that accumulates and even in the most brilliant of people it prevents an orderly transformation of a cohesive thought. The noise kills the signal of reason.

The Digital World

Let me digress to the digital world a bit. You are familiar with viruses, worms, Trojan horses and spy-bots, I am sure. These are the fanciful but extremely disruptive software programs that can bring the computing world onto a screeching halt. But have you heard of “Denial of Service” or DoS? Some probably are nodding as they read this. Well good for you. But did you know that DoS occurs as a direct result of a tremendous surge of “noise” that shuts down the servers. In other words, if the “spy-bots” floating around as zombies hiding in millions of computers suddenly are alerted into action and start sending a signal to a particular website to overrun the site’s ability to handle the “requests,” the site computer, unable to differentiate between signal and noise, will have no recourse but to shut down. Thus a 10-year old computer savvy kid can mess the proprietary system of a large corporation by increasing the “noise.”


And if you are still here with me (Thank you, by the way), one last  “jump” into the world of the human mind. As you know that the brain triggers an event memory of the past only when enough recruitment of the neuronal signals has occurred. Let me explain, if you smell a familiar faint aroma, it might not trigger an event, but a strong aroma with the fading sunlight might conjure up a romantic past event. This is the simplified version of Deja vous. But now even with a strong aroma that lurks, when it is associated with the sounds of the cars passing by with their horns blaring, the signal is lost and is unable to override the noise and conjure up that past event, even with the fading sunlight is at hand. The brain looks for signals, for direction and finding too many shuts down with its own version of DoS.

Do not underestimate the power of the “noise.”

It limits comprehension!

It subverts reason!

It creates de-coherence!

The only utility left in these days of plenty (of noise) is “Focus!”

Let me leave you with the wisdom of Yeats:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…” (The Second Coming)

1 comment:

  1. Take Home Message:

    "Let go your concious self and act on instinct."
    Obi Wan Kenobi