Friday, June 29, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Over exposed

 How many murderers share my train on the morning commute? One? Three? Probably none given that every year in the UK there are only 600 of what the police class as homicides.

For those that want to be sure, there’s no easy way to find out unless you are a serving police officer and even then doing that sort of trawl breaks all kinds of laws. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that limits we impose on technology, both legal and technical, help preserve privacy and anonymity.

Not for long. A quick search reveals at least three separate projects to create apps for phones that look at the people around you, identify them and let you know what they have shared about themselves online. Add to that tech which can already read fingerprints from many meters away and you have a system that renders anonymity meaningless.

The net is also really bad at forgetting the information you shared and, just as there are ways to find out the history of a car you want to buy, then there will be ways to look over the history of anyone and everyone.

And just as there are rating systems for restaurants there will be rating systems for people. That might mean difficult, shouty folks get to eat a lot more food with their server's spit in it but might also mean that you, who is often a model of compassion and good manners, can never escape that moment of madness you always regret or that you can never take back the bad things you said in that row because your heart was being broken. You won’t be able to offer an explanation or context to people you never meet but who will judge you anyway. Some people may feel that burn more swiftly than others.

So, in the future your name, nickname, attitudes and habits will be available to everyone. Chances are the youngsters will see privacy as an old-fashioned notion. Already, if we want to pay someone the compliment of listening to everything they say, we’ll take out the earbuds and listen. A few years from now going private may be reserved only for those most special moments.

In the future, but not too long away, when you travel and meet new folks you’ll know a lot about them. And, because they are complicated human beings, you won’t know all of it. Just the crowdsourced summary which may not be all of it, but what people reacted to. And they’ll know the same about you. That might be pernicious.

Now, when we meet new people we usually know nothing about them. We assume that they are decent folks and proceed on that basis. Society proceeds on that basis. Removing that anonymity for an imperfect summary of someone’s behaviour (poor impulse control, needy, passive aggressive, penny pinching) seems a poor bargain.

People will claim that knowing more about someone will not change their opinion and that they will judge those people by their actions not their past deeds. Human psychology being what it is I suspect that will be unachievable. One way or another it will colour the interaction either by over-compensation or deep-dyed prejudice. Could you ever overlook it, if you met a reformed murderer? Would you let them look after your kids?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I studied Sartre (for a while) but really only understood him for 30 minutes one March afternoon in late 1988 after I'd spent the day in the library poring over Being and Nothingness and every study guide I could find for it. It was a sublime 30 minutes though. Everything, the grain of the wood on the desk, the weave on the seat cushion, the tightness of the laces cinching my shoes, were more present to me than ever before. Pretty much the only time that philosophy broke through from the realm of the mind to reality, for me. However, thanks to this, I think I actually understand him all over again. Superbe.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Before They Were Famous: Thedore Sturgeon

Number three in an increasingly occasional series. This one is about Ether Breather by Theodore Sturgeon that was published in 1939 in Astounding Science Fiction. It appeared in the September edition if this page is to be believed.

I've not read much TS but what I have read I liked, in particular More than Human. I picked TS to look at because he's regularly mentioned, mainly by Sam Delany, as being one of the most innovative users of language in the business.

So, what of Ether Breather? It is a mystery story, sort of. It is about a writer who sees some of his work appear on TV but changed in many bad ways - swearing and crass advertising for the main part. Then similar disfgurement happens to other shows and no-one knows why. It falls to the writer and a perfume magnate to solve the problem - which is caused by strange beings that live in the ether and can change TV signals as they pass through their brains.

It is a neat idea and had currency given that the BBC started the first public TV service in 1936 and it received great publicity at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. It's also prescient as colour TV wasn't available until 1953.

As a story it works fairly well. It throws the reader right into the action and within a few hundred words the main character is choking a TV executive in his office for butchering his precious script. However, there is precious little character development and it suffers from the problem many of those golden era stories fell victim to, in that it's really about a smart guy with a lab. In this case the smarty pants turns out to be the perfume magnate. He just happens to have the perfect set up to discover the bizarre beings.

Are there hints of what Sturgeon would become? Maybe, the dialogue scampers along and there's plenty of slang and back and forth to keep the story going.

What's most interesting is what it says about Sturgeon as a writer. I may be reading too much in to it but it does reveal some of the fears of a begininng writer who is enjoying some success. The opening is about the difficulties a writer has in selling a story because it is too hackneyed or "pastel" as the story puts it. That's a common fear. Then it deals with what happens to works that escape the artists control and it frets about what happens to a work when the ad men get involved.

Fundamentally, though, its about the fear writers, artists, creators have of being misinterpreted. Lots of writers fear that people will not get the message behind what they are saying. A briting satire may be misread as a love story or a hackneyed drama a trenchant comment on kitchen sink cliches. There's no real moral to the story, except perhaps that sometimes all you can do is commit it to the airwaves and move on

Flashing blades

I've always wondered about depictions of sword fighting and whether they were authentic. Thanks to this, some of my questions have been answered.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Eat plutonium death...

Foreign Policy debates what big guns we could bring to bear should the aliens crack open the skies and set about enslaving mankind. Extra points for knowing where the title of this post comes from and what the last four words are.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Me, myself and I

When I was a child I mentally wound myself into knots wondering how I could be sure that the world was not an illusion specially prepared to trick me. I think this profound suspicion that the world was not as I experienced it came out of being brought up in a part of the country that is all dales, vales and valleys.

Growing up in such territory made it natural to wonder what was happening in the next valley over, especially as what was happening there was completely hidden. Perhaps if I had been brought up in Norfolk or Iowa I would not have been prey to such thoughts. And I was the catspaw, the prey of that idea as I have clear memories of filling long car journeys racking my puny childhood brain for a way to pierce the illusion.

I had very clear ideas about the way I was being fooled. Someone or something was maintaining a bubble of earthly being around me. Beyond the edges of the bubble the real world could be seen in all its fantastic wonder. I was a big reader of SF (especially PKD) while this perception was taking hold, I'm sure one fed the other, and I was convinced that things were more advanced than they seemed and I was being kept back.

Driving up hills I wondered if our speed would outrun the efforts of whoever was behind the illusion to maintain it. Perhaps I would see a great flap of countryside slide into place just as we topped a hill, trees shuddering as the landscape settled like a vast green wave. But they never slipped up. Or, if they did, I never noticed.

When I started to learn about philosophy I sought out thinkers who had subjected the idea to more rigorous thought than I could ever manage. Strawson, Wittgenstein's private language argument and G E Moore's Defence of Common Sense were candles in my darkness. For a while, at least.

But then, I realised, I did not need a defence against the solipsism they were battling. I had no doubt that other people existed and were real. My desire was to pierce the illusion, to catch out the illusionists so they had to show me what was really going on. I've racked my brains for a way to do this but no simple way presents itself.

If this were a computer simulation then I can imagine that it would be possible to show up the limits inherent in such a deterministic system. It might take time, a lifetime at least, to spot the places were the algorithms run dry and the world's variety is shown up to be finite.

Smarter people than me have considered the question of whether we are living in a simulation. The most famous paper dealing with it makes some good points but does not convince me, not least because the three alternatives it proposes do not seem mutually exclusive. I still wonder and want to believe.

The forceful idea that I'm missing something profound has returned with vigor recently. More than ever I feel like Ragel Gumm, set down in a world that makes a kind of sense but is also one that feels like there is a greater sense to be had, if I could but just grasp its tail and pull. Then again, maybe it's just middle age, when ambition is replaced by regret and lots of things in life stop making sense.