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Murphy's Law may be Superstition
but Entropy is all too real!

The intrusion of the unexpected into our delusions of control may be annoying,
but can be reassuring evidence of our place in the
"Big Picture".


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 Our Context - The "Big Picture"  

 Entropy in every day life



 Yin, Yang and Change  

 Entropy at work

 Work versus entropy

 Work and Labour Value 

  Work in progress  


Preamble - - to be read at your own peril!

To the engineers and those with too little poetry in their hearts, entropy is just a mathematical construct used to describe and quantify the loss of information in a system and the extent to which energy in a system has become unavailable for doing work. [That is, entropy is a measure of the proportion of energy in a system which is unavailable for doing work.]

The engineers and their friends should not be allowed sole ownership of the concept however because it is an essential component of any truly modern understanding of our place in the scheme of things. And why is this? It is because EVERYTHING that we have anything at all to do with is subject to entropy and entropy is what gives us time. Furthermore, without the simple word "entropy" we ordinary folk are forced into reliance on emotional and value laden expressions such as "shit happens" or "Murphy's Law" or "fate" and others which may incline us to superstition, resignation and the wrong sort of politics - that of blaming and scapegoating. The only other simple word that comes close to covering these ideas in a similar way is "change".


 Our Context - The "Big Picture"

Taking the broadest possible conception, energy is movement and entropy is movement into the void. The void is the mother of time. Did the void exist [or not exist as the case may be] before the universe? What meaning can we possibly put on the words: "before the universe"?

Time is real because the universe is expanding. This is explained as follows. If the universe was not expanding it would be contracting due to the mutual gravitational attraction of all the galaxies, dark matter, etc, - and our sky would be getting fuller and fuller of galaxies as they approached each other and thus ever hotter in every direction. Either that or the universe must extend infinitely in all directions, to balance the gravitational pull from every direction, in which case the heavens would be wall to wall with stars exuding radiation at the temperature of the sun, and this latter situation is certainly not the case.
So the universe is expanding and "unfolding as it should".

The universe came into existence out of nothing, whatever that means. Let's just call it the Great Mystery. Nothingness is the mother of all things yet contained within nothingness was the beginnings of movement. How can that be? The beginnings of movement was "contained within" because how could there be anything outside of nothingness? [The ancient Chinese represented this idea with the symbol of Tai Ji, a circle half black and half white representing the principles of Yang - activity - and Yin - repose - with the two seeming to flow one from the other and returning always to it and with the seed of its opposite within the strongest part of each.]

 Ultimately we don't know [yet?] how it all started. But it is true that entropy is movement into the void: energy seems to spread out into the void or to spread itself throughout what ever seeks to contain it - and the engineers' numerical figure for entropy is more or less an expression of the extent to which this has happened. There is nothing magical about this, it could be treated statistically to show that "energy" correlates with the velocity of particles [e = mv2 ] and that particles with higher energy spend more time in more places than slower particles [which is obvious] and higher energy particles are better able to surmount and escape barriers which stop slower particles. In our everyday life this appears as a tendency for things to break into pieces which spread out unpredictably, and for structures to disintegrate, for signals to disappear into noise, for order to become disorder. It is usual that when these things happen they are ireversible. Thus we have "before" and "after" which is the essence of time.


 Entropy in every day life.Navigate current page

 My non-mathematical version of entropy for everyday life:

    Entropy is energy escaping, which leads to this -

    In any given situation there are always more things that can happen than we want to happen and often there are more things can happen than we can possibly know about.

Thus we are always confronted by the unexpected and by seemingly random processes which happen easily yet which require concentrated effort to undo and by irreversible changes that create "before" and "after" - the arrow of time. Hoses and ropes get tangled, loaves of bread and cakes shed crumbs as we cut them, smudges appear on our paper as we write, clothes and shoes get dirty, dust collects on floors and every flat surface, jam, marmite, peanut butter and ice cream all spread onto infant hands and faces, a dirty "tide line" appears around the bath tub, factory chimneys and vehicle exhausts emit smoke and other pollutants into the air. And these are just the things we can see, feel and smell!

Out of sight and out of mind all sorts of other changes go on which eventually surprise us:
  • behind the paint work the pressed steel sheets of my van are rusting,
    [update: the new van [ie 10 yo instead of 19 yo] appears not to be rusting so fast Yet!] 
  • in cupboards and drawers umpteen species of bacteria, fungi, insects, and the rest are oozing, etching and munching their ways through my clothes, my books and magazines and my stored food,
  • on the roof of my house the tiles are slowly turning porous,
  • at the side of the house where old brickwork faces the weather from the west, the lime is leaching out of the old mortar leaving the grains of sand to gradually work themselves loose,
  • under brick paving and concrete slabs ants are slowly but remorselessly excavating and undermining,
  • on fascia boards, gates and fences the paint is weathering also,
  •  here is a particularly nice one [5 Jan 2003]: within the body of a nylon radiator drain plug, last touched and possibly over-tightned by a mechanic 14 months previously, a crack slowly grows as molecules separate along a line of shearing stress so that one hot day in [southern hemisphere] summer when the shade temperature is 35 oc, the little radiator plug splits open allowing all the coolant to spray out whilst the van is being driven along a busy highway.

Nothing stays the same. Generally speaking we fool ourselves if we think that any of our affairs are separated and protected from the march of time. The liberated energy of the Sun, the liberated energy of uranium and its children decaying in the depths of Earth and the energy liberated from the angular momenta of Earth and Moon through tidal friction all eventually penetrate every secret place and every aspect of human affairs.
"My name is Ozimandius, King of Kings,
Look on my deeds ye mighty and despair."
 - The pride filled words of an expired head honcho.]


 Structure Navigate current page

 Living things can be seen as locations or regions of space time in which structures emerge because gravity, the nuclear force and electromagnetic force constrain the outpouring of energy from the Sun into the void. This may seem a very abstract way of thinking about it but actually it leads to a quite practical understanding.

Planet Earth provides gravity, a powerful constraint, which helps to hold things in place. The nuclear force holds together atomic nuclei which come in many different sizes - the atomic elements - and each of these have characteristically different ways of holding their electron clouds around them. Electrical attractions and repulsions between atoms and molecules provide stable arrangements and allow many instances of each such arrangement to exist and yet also allow potentially infinite variability and change. For the last four or more billion years this planet has been bathed in the stream of excess energy from the Sun, so the process of molecular experimentation has been producing untold permutations. Many are so stable they become fixed in place as rocks, many have persisted as components of living things the rest either never occur again or are only ever transient features in liquids or gases around the place. The structures of living things inhabit a boundary zone between stability and chaos, sometimes resisting deformation and change and other times bending, breaking or dissolving depending on the chemical and physical environment of the moment. . This, generally speaking, is the basis of life - an emergent property of planet Earth

The tendency of atoms and molecules to bind together gives us the most easily understood structures: what we call "physical" bodies which have mass, extension in three dimensions, topological complexities and complex distributions of electrical charge. Biological structures are generally very complex and usually consist of smaller structures which have coalesced to form a greater whole. At the molecular level the smaller units are often strung together like a chain and the resultant long chain folded in a characteristic way. This is the way of it with the thousands of different proteins which make up the structure and machinery of animal cells which in turn hold together to form the bodies we can see with the naked eye.

There are other things which exist whose primary feature is the structure itself. These are mental objects such as concepts manifest through natural language, mathematical objects such as numbers and computer programs, muscular control programs such as skills and habits, and DNA and viral RNA. In none of these cases can we say that there is a structure that is not made out of something; in every case there is a substrate i.e. something with mass or mass equivalent [energy] which is constrained in some way. This point is worth emphasising because sometimes people make assertions along the lines that: "some kinds of things have a 'purely formal' existence" somehow implying that there are things which can exist in a non-physical dimension, and be unaffected by the universe of atoms and molecules. That kind of thinking is an illusory hang-over from the pre-scientific universe. In fact 'these kinds of things' tend to have a much lower mass and generally a much smaller size than things of the first type - so called physical things - but they resist annihilation and in many cases are capable of influencing the world around them in such ways as lead to their being copied. This is called replicator power.

I have discussed the existence of this other category of thing elsewhere:

"Things" which looks at how thoughts and other elements of culture really are things in themselves and
Memes & Replicator Power which looks at the replicator power of memes and other mental objects.

Some of my correspondents - and one in particular goes on about it If the cap fits, where it! - object to this way of thinking and they assert that thoughts, for example, may manifest in association with the brain but are not in the brain or of the brain. The term "supervenience" is used to try and define the relationship between mental constructs and the brain. The way I see it, this just leads inevitably to some kind of dualism and gratuitously ignores the fact that the activity of neurons as they network together constitutes evolution of the structure of the brain. As far as I can see, denial of my assertion requires us to ignore the essential identity of thought with brain activity and leaves us no closer to understanding the human mind than people were 400 years ago before the advent of scientific method.


 Yin, Yang, and change  Navigate current page

It is possible to harmonise and reconcile some aspects of ancient Chinese thought as manifest in the Classic of Changes [Zhou Yi or Yi Jing] with modern, scientifically based insights into the nature of life and mental activity.

  • Yang is energy and movement, the propensity to change, the source and manifestation of irreversible change.
    This is the expansion of the universe writ small.
  • Yin is quietude, darkness and repose, non change.
    This is what allows 'things' to exist.
  • Emergent from the combination of these is repeating, cyclic change.
    This is the engine of life. 
 Modern thinking about the place of life in the universe sees living things inhabiting regions or states of opportunity between excessive energy and chaos on one side and quietude and order on the other. This is so from the largest to the smallest levels of size and organisational complexity.  Some key concepts used to describe systems inhabiting the border land between chaos and crystal, so to speak are:
critical stability, strange attractors and self-similarity.
 Critical stability [or self organising criticality - a much less euphonious term] describes a relatively unstable state in which a system experiences sudden, relatively unpredictable, episodes of energetic change and disorder alternating with periods of ordered quietude. The changes occur because of energy entering the system and being stored in some way until a critical thresholds is reached whereupon the energy is released in a sudden disturbance. A simple example of this is a pile of dry sand or cereal grains. As sand or grain is poured steadily onto the heap the new grains slide and roll down the sides of the pile until they are stopped by friction. They then rest on the slope until sufficient mass of grains lies on the upper part of the pile to cause a slide lower down. These slides may be larger or smaller but the net effect is that, for a given type of grain, the slope of the pile will remain very close to an angle characteristic of that substance.
Strange attractors describe behaviours of many systems in which some repeating process recurs without ever exactly repeating what has happened just before. The slope of the sand pile in the previous example is a simple form of attractor:

 Entropy at work Navigate current page

 One important reason for dwelling on the concept of entropy is that it allows us to be rational about our optimism and about our scepticism. If we understand that intrusions of the annoyingly unexpected into our delusions of control are actually manifestations of the creative potential of the universe, then maybe we will not feel so bad about it. Well, maybe ... This guarantee we have that we will never know everything that can happen is also a guarantee that there will always be something new under the sun; there is always going to be a new angle and a new way forward if we are patient and observant enough. This guarantee of the unexpected is also a powerful reason for taking the gung-ho slogans of manipulators and snake oil merchants with more than a grain of salt. We should always encourage rational enthusiasm but beware of self-deluding, fast talking, "can do" heroes. [10]



Work versus Entropy Navigate current page

Reversing the effects of entropy - restoring order, maintaining and expanding useful structures, creating new structures - always requires work to be done. The engineers will say that for any given circumscribed, and otherwise closed, system the entropy within the system can never decrease; whenever something happens within the system the amount of energy available to do work [i.e. move things around] decreases. The overall amount of energy in the closed system does not change, it is just that to make some particular thing happen there must be energy stored up [potential energy] at some particular place in order to be deployed applying force in certain directions and not others and after this has happened, the energy used to do it is no longer concentrated and available as it was before. It has spread out, so to speak.

In passing it is very worth noting that this general discussion is true of all systems that we care to think of including the brains of individuals - you and me - as well as groups of people working in small or large organisations and in all situations, whether domestic, work & business, sporting or political. From a completely reasonable materialist viewpoint it can be seen that any entity within our universe, whether god-like, angelic or whatever, will be subject to entropy in this way. This has definite implications for any form of communication and implies real limits to any purported "spiritual" insights into the future such as prophecy and/or trunk line to "the mind of God".

The only way to enable a circumscribed system to be restored to a previous state is through the introduction of energy from outside and to allow the outflow of the non-recoverable energy to the outside world, i.e. cooling and waste disposal. We humans are forever circumscribing areas and places, seeking to control, maintain and expand the structures and relationships we value. In doing this we are simply expanding upon what all other living things do in their own ways. We in our cultural evolution however have evolved the process to fantastic levels of complexity.


Work and Labour Value Navigate current page

From the apparently simple tasks of cleaning and tidying around the house to the most complex tasks of industry, science and medicine, the essential feature of human work is the intelligent application of energy in the creation and maintenance of structures and relationships we favour in preference to structures and relationships which would otherwise occur. Even the simplest of cleaning and tidying requires some thought and it can always benefit from some planning. The rest is energy and persistence which we experience as effort. The same is true whether the task is domestic and usually unpaid or scientific, industrial, artistic or entrepreneurial and requiring great skill for which a high wage is [or should be] paid.

It is absolutely crucial to understand this because in Western societies the ideology of the ruling elites equates "value" with that for which money is paid; the more the money paid then the greater the value - unless of course some sucker is being deprived of his "even chance" in which case the equivalence of value for money is dispensed with because it is more important to "make as much as you can" which is a sacred duty. Actually, equating value with money paid for something is a circular process of logic but it is none the less one of the foundations of capitalism. The "Law" of supply and demand is held up as an assurance of the practical and philosophical soundness of this idea but the lie is revealed with each cycle of boom and bust. The deeper truth is that most of the money in existence has been created by banks in the form of credit given to borrowers through loan contracts. The amount of money in existence should be a reflection of the amount of wealth created through human labour but this is not so. It should also be the case that the value of work done by everybody should be properly recognised and accounted for but this is not so also.  

When we look at the long term consequences of actions it ought to be clear that some of the most important work done anywhere is in the nurturing of children.



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Footnotes   Navigate this page


This last idea is very relevant to the processes of selection for appointments and promotion in large organisations, which includes government agencies, large capitalist entities and political parties. There seems to be a pronounced tendency for people with a more gung-ho, self confident attitude to reach higher office than those of a more careful disposition. We are talking about natural temperament and learned habits here. This bias occurs because selection committees usually have a hard job to decide between candidates for most jobs. Of course some hopefuls are easily excluded - "short listed out" but, where the abilities of competing candidates are similar or are disparate yet seem to provide useful coverage of the selection criteria, the committee will give preference to the candidate who seems more sure of him/her self. Being sure of oneself is what happens when a particularly stable set of mental models becomes attached to the self model. It is a question of fact of course whether the "real" world external to the mind [the very existence of which is a problem to some philosophers Who may just be annoyed that they didn't think of it first.] is correctly reflected by the mental models. It is always so that mental models - as the archetypes of all other kind of models - never represent *everything* of the thing being represented so there is in principle always the possibility that the mental model may not be the best possible representation of everything *salient* about the real world situation. We can say that plans bear to their realisation the same relationship that a drawing bears to its subject.

What follows from the institutional bias in selection of persons for higher position and responsibility is that large organisations come to be governed and driven by people with a stronger predisposition towards "clear cut", "cut and dried" views about things. If we are lucky, the lower levels of such organisations retain people of a more careful disposition who will pay attention to details, to the intrusions of the unexpected, and the unplanned.

Some would see this difference as completely natural, fair and efficient: "let the leaders lead!" because someone must have the vision which guides the organisation. The problem is that the predisposition towards the gung-ho, "can do", approach to life the universe and everything does not endow its exponent with any more wisdom than anybody else and seems often to include an inability to understand or believe in complexities, let alone a want to deal with them. What can result from this is bad policy and bad practice in which the unexpected is not budgeted for. When the glorious vision of the leaders is confounded by intrusions of the unexpected, the leaders want to blame someone - anyone but themselves - because the plan was so clear to them. The antidote to this situation in an organisation is two fold. On the one hand there must be systematic implementation of democratic consultation and feedback so that issues arising during real time observations by workers are communicated without fear to the governing committee or board of the organisation. On the other hand there must be compulsory, secret, preferential ballots as part, if not all, of the process of selections for promotion or acting on "higher duties". back to can-do heroes






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