Monday, March 17, 2008

Information Algebra

I get more information from two newspapers than from one - but not twice as much information. So how much more, exactly? That depends how much difference there is between the two newspapers.

Even if two newspapers report the same general facts, they typically report different details, and they may have different sources. To the extent that there are differences in style and detail between the two newspapers, this typically reinforces my confidence in the overall story because it indicates that the journalists are not merely reusing a common source (such as a company press release).

In the real world, we are accustomed to the fact that information and intelligence needs double-checking and corroboration. And yet in the computer world, there is a widespread belief that it is always a good thing to have a single source of information - that repeated messages are not only unnecessary but wasteful. Data cleansing wipes out difference in the name of consistency and standardization, leaving the resulting information flat and attenuated. A single source of information ("single source of truth") sometimes means a single source of failure - never a good idea in an open distributed system.

Writing about this in an SOA context - when three heads are better than one - Steve Jones describes this as redundancy, and points out the potential value of redundancy to increase reliability. He quotes Lewis Carroll (as Andrew Clarke points out, it was actually the Bellman): "What I tell you three times is true."

The same quote can be found at the head of Chapter 3 of Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, available online as Multiple Versions of the World. This expands on Bateson's earlier slogan "Two descriptions are better than one".

Bateson himself used the word "redundancy", but it is not a simple redundancy that can be plucked out without a second thought. Thinking about the consequences of adding and subtracting redundancy is a hard problem - Paulo Rocchi calls it calculus, but I prefer to call it algebra.

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