Thursday, March 3, 2011

Engineering 101: The Nature of a Transmission Signal

At the very basic level, each individual manuscript, and the entire transmission stream as a whole, can be viewed as a transmission-signal. This can be broadly represented by an instructive graph:

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Although the information content may be pre-decided, or fixed in advance, like a snap-shot or finished writing, the transmission process in most cases will still be sequential, and involve a process extending over time, like the act of copying or a radio broadcast.   The nature of this transmission process is such that the information must be broken down into packets and transmitted piece by piece, both in ancient times and even in the modern digital age.

This process actually works in favor of inerrancy in the overview.   For instance, a Gospel will normally be broken down into 'pericopes' or paragraphs, each of which is complete and functional in terms of carrying its information content.   If a Gospel breaks down into say 40 paragraphs or Units, 39 of them can still be transmitted successfully, even if one suffers loss or damage.    With parallel or redundant copies or transmissions, the entire 40 units can still be transmitted without error, even if every individual copy (or set of units) suffers some hits.

Making a significant number of good copies of a document, even by hand, ensures the essential integrity of the information and the accuracy of the text as a whole, provided all or a reasonably good sample of the copies is preserved and used to establish the text.

It is perhaps surprising but not totally unexpected, that a message can be fully preserved, even with such a simple mechanism as reasonably careful copying.  The idea is very simple in fact.  With reasonably good copying, it is unlikely that two copies will have the very same errors.  Even if two copyists occasionally make the same mistake, this mistake will remain a very small minority reading.

Some good statistical discussion of this issue can be found in Pickering's Online book, in an appendix here:

Appendix C: The Implications of Statistical Probability

The best technique to ensure error-free transmission is in fact the simplest:
(1) Multiply Good Copies: Make as many good copies as possible of each document,
(2) Minimize Copy Generations: Always start as close to the original as possible.
(3) Preserve Adequate Samples: Keep a good number of MSS available,  or at least recoverable, at the end of the transmission process.
(4) Avoid Emendations: Resist the temptation to 'correct' or edit the text, but duplicate as accurately as possible what is found in your master-copy.

That is, all that is required is to make say 3 or more copies of each copy,  and preserve a good representative sample of the same collection of copies.   The technique is surprisingly robust, even without special methods or techniques to improve accuracy.   Any well-executed application of this basic method will create what may be reasonably labelled a "bullet-proof" transmission.

What is perhaps remarkable, but goes unnoticed, is that what is true for hand-copying manuscripts is also true for printed edited texts!   This is because the same rules govern any transmission process.  Any critical text which breaks these basic rules will inevitably introduce errors into the transmission process.  Examples of such cases are these:
(1) Failing to rely on adequate samples of available manuscripts.
(2) Making conjectural emendations without statistical foundation in the surviving copies.
We will examine the special cases in which a transmission may go awry later, and also simple and reasonable techniques for countering information loss and correcting the transmission process.

Joe Layman

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