And here’s to 2004.
If you think it’s looking a little blank around here, you should try Interconnected.
There seem to have been a large number of death-rattling computers recently. Worryingly, given that I’m trying to work at home this week, my PC is slowly losing contact with its hard drive. It’s like a car on a cold morning; all imprecations and nervous interpretation of every clank and whirr.
Hold on, let me pull the choke out a little more before this things stalls comp
What do legsore travellers think when they disembark at Gatwick airport and find that the route to central London is through the tatty sadlands of Croydon and Streatham? Streatham, in particular, has that odd narrowness of streets British cities achieve without ever straying close to either the chic or the quaint.
Streatham is the sort of place you quickly remember not to stop, unless it’s for the magnificently conceived bulk-buy Indian supermarket (AKA the cash & curry). As I reluctantly pulled the car over at a petrol station one evening last week, it was therefore only after careful calculation had shown that I would conk out in Croydon.
The forecourt was gloomy, underlit and overlooked by a dark brick building of indeterminate purpose. The sign on the pump was both grim and baffling:
A PRE-PAY SERVICE IS NOW
BEING USED AT THIS STATION,
PLEASE SEE THE ATTENDANT
A particularly curious edition of the BBC’s venerable science strand Horizon last night. Is time travel possible? it asked.
The programme put forward the usual theoretical evidence for mechanisms for time travel that are completely beyond our means. Then it finished matters off with a marvellous rhetorical flourish.
Time travel, it is claimed, is perfectly possible, as long as we completely redefine what we mean by time travel. Let’s redefine it for these purposes not as literally moving to the past or far future, but as having access to the past. I know, I know, but stay with me on this for a minute.
The hypothesis goes something like this:
Computing power in our society is increasing exponentially. From this we can extrapolate that a sufficiently advanced civilisation (i.e. not us) would have increased their computing power infinitely.
The realism of computer image rendering is also increasing massively right now. So we can also extrapolate that this hypothetical advanced civilisation would not only be able to compute an infinite amount of information infinitely quickly, but would also be able to render images of such fidelity that we would be incapable of telling the difference between reality and simulation.
In effect, they would be able to build a perfect virtual reality, the inhabitants of which would not even realise they are not ‘real’. By carefully recording everything, they would be able to recreate it with perfect fidelity at a later date for their own amusement or study.
One further assumption gets us to a horrifying realisation: this advanced civilisation with infinite computing power would not, of course, limit themselves to building one virtual reality; they would build, we are told, billions.
Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
We are left with a multitude of seamlessly perfect simulations. The consequence is that statistically, we are vastly more likely to be unknowingly living inside a simulation than in the real world.
Isn’t that disturbing?
On the other hand, if this Matrix-like shocker has failed to put the willies up you, maybe that’s because, recalling Descartes’ struggles with his ‘malicious demon’ and difficulties with telling dream from reality, you suspect this is just an attempt on familiar philosophical issues with a bit of dot.com era technodazzle.
Or it may be because you’re uneasily aware of the number of unproven assumptions it contains. It’s an a priori argument; an attempt to move from a small set of secure assumptions to a logically sound conclusion.
So let’s go back in time to the start of the virtual reality hypothesis and have a quick look again at some of those assumptions.
First, you will recall, we note the current exponential increase in computing power and imagine that, for a sufficiently advanced civilisation, this exponential increase would increase until processing power reached infinity.
Infinity is a pretty big number, you know. The first test here should be whether infinite computing power is, in principle, even possible. I doubt it is. Nevertheless, this could be Horizon oversimplifying. You might not really require infinite computing power. Unimaginably large might be sufficient, and I’ve got no a priori reason to doubt that someone, someday, could achieve a massive, finite amount of computing power.
Next up, and correlating with our unimaginably large computing power, is infinitely realistic image rendering power. Well, for starters, if we can get by with just unimaginably large computing power, I don’t see why we can’t reduce our requirement here to unimaginably realistic image rendering. Our eyes have a resolution limit set by the number of rods and cones on our retinas, and there’s no a priori reason to doubt that image rendering fast and good enough to fool us could be achieved.
Horizon does, however, only mention imaging. We have four other major senses that would require fooling. Again, I’ve no particular reason to doubt that a sufficiently sophisticated linkup to my brain could stimulate in me the smell of bacon cooking, the touch of silk (both with and against the nap), or the taste of a good 12-year old Scotch. I do think, though, that the hypothesis should take account of the other senses, because the ‘exponential increase’ measurement simply doesn’t apply equally across them all.
But these are minor cavils compared to my problems with what the hypothesis seeks to do with these assumptions. For they are supposed to add up to the conclusion that a sufficiently advanced civilisation could build a simulation so good that we could not distinguish it from the real world.
In fact, it’s very hard to see exactly what the hypothesis is claiming would occur; a fault, I assume, of the documentary rather than the hypothesis itself. Does it suggest that we are flesh-and-blood creatures linked, Matrix-style, to a massive VR machine? If so, there are a number of practical matters to consider, many of which concern synchronisation. If I really cough, do I cough in the simulation, and vice versa? What happens when a flesh-and-blood person dies? Co-ordinating a sudden collapse may be possible, but what if the person is revived in the real world — or in the simulation?
It could be argued that the requirements of synchronisation would be so onerous that, in effect, the distance between real experience and simulation would be decreased to the point that simulation would be pointless.
I think that, instead, the hypothesis suggests that we are just artificial constructs in a wholly artificial environment. This sounds a whole lot more possible, a little like a vastly more sophisticated version of Sim City, with us as the Sims. But, note, Sims don’t ’sense’ anything in any way that would would understand. They have directly coded responses. They carry numerical values, not sense impressions. They have, in short, no consciousness as we understand it.
I think you can see where I’m going. The whole simulation hypothesis has wandered into the artificial intelligence argument, with all of the baggage that carries; free will, determinism, the Turing test, mind/body problems, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. I don’t intend to rehearse the whole set of issues here. Even if I wished to, I couldn’t. Suffice to say that Horizon alleged that the hypothesis raises difficult questions about the nature of free will. No it doesn’t. It reiterates the difficult questions about free will that we already have, just in a different context.
In short, though, we can dump those first two assumptions about computing power. They’re irrelevant. The real assumption is that computer-generated constructs can achieve consciousness. This is such a big deal that although you can argue it, there’s no way you can assume it.
In fact, it’s slightly worse than that. The Turing test aside, I don’t think that most versions of AI argument would require that an artificial consciousness be or appear the same as a human one. But the simulation hypothesis does just that. It argues that your feeling of consciousness, your experience of being you, could be a simulation. Tricky, to say the least.
Not only has the simulation hypothesis boxed itself into a very hard version of AI, it’s done it for an oddly meaningless reason. We can’t help our starting point in this argument. We have to look at it as someone simulating Earth, 2003, because that’s where we are (or seem to be).
But in order for a sufficiently advanced civilisation to simulate Earth, 2003, they must be recording it in perfect detail. There is no other option. The fossil record is, I’m afraid, not good enough to perfectly reconstruct every event on Earth, neither are the admittedly huge number of radio waves we’re sending out.
Now, maybe you could argue that alleged UFO sightings are evidence of aliens recording every detail of our lives for later reconstruction. I won’t, but maybe you will. They would, of course, have to appear inside the simulation every time they appeared in the real world, so I think we avoid any discrepancies between real and simulated world, but I still don’t think there’s any way around the enormous improbability of it all.
Finally, there is the assumption that a massively complex, massively fast, massively extensive simulation could run indefinitely without crashing. This is an assumption that cannot be extrapolated from current computing capabilities. Ironically, the site that sets out the simulation argument is, as I write, not responding.
It’s curious, though, that the hypothesis could be reworked to avoid a large number of these problems simply by having it not be a simulation. All of the problems except the fundamental one of consciousness can be removed from the equation simply by having our experiential world be a fiction. As Charles Fort teasingly suggested, ‘I think we’re property’. I never knew what that was supposed to mean. Maybe he meant we were counters in some great computer game, just Sims, part of a wild abstract of life tweaked for entertainment value.
Time travel? I suppose games are very good at that. You can always return to the beginning for another go. If, that is, you’re really sure you want to quit this game without saving.
I’ve mentioned the perfect tabloid headline before. You may recall that ‘Sex change bishop in in palace mercy dash’ served very well right up until the 80s. In these dissolute days, I suggest ‘Asylum seekers plot Beckham kidnap’.
But that’s for the national papers. Local rags are a different matter entirely. The ideal local paper headline would involve neighbours from hell, family events, hospital, violence, some man-bites-dog type reversal and, if possible, court action.
Bearing these criteria in mind, please be upstanding for this heavyweight effort from the supernaturally talented South London Press:
GRAN ‘GLASSED AT WEDDING’
Just about everything you need in only four words. Surely the local headline of the year.
The always clear-thinking Lance Knobel brought to my attention tonight’s Channel Five dramatisation of the MMR vaccine panic.
The panic centres on the unrepeated findings of Dr Andrew Wakefield, who is still pushing his thesis despite the vast bulk of medical research and opinion suggesting that there is no demonstrable link. As another piece of teasingly suggestive but unclear research is published today, Channel 4 News has just run a remarkable interview with Wakefield, in which he disowned responsibility for anyone except the patient sitting across his desk. An extraordinary position for a man who has publicly agitated against the MMR vaccine since the 1998 press conference where he started off the whole goose chase.
There is a 15-minute version of the interview on Channel 4’s website but, I’m sorry to say that despite his several mentions of it on the programme, Jon Snow neglected to point out that it is only available on the channel’s pay-for-broadband service. Bad Channel 4. Very bad.
The single most illuminating article I’ve read on this whole affair of late is this review by Ben Goldacre. I note also that Channel Five’s factsheet on the subject is, although painful in its attempts to be even-handed (as distinct from objective), exceedingly careful in presenting the story only in the context of current Department of Health advice on MMR.
If it weren’t for the fact that we’re building ourselves up for a deadly outbreak of measles, especially here in faddy London, the whole business would be reminiscent of the rogue science of the cold fusion farrago.
Even something as mundane as a cold plays havoc with the intake of the chemicals that most of us use to control our day.
It’s not just that I spent last week popping Ibroprufen, cold powders and the muscle relaxants I need now that I have developed the habit of ricking my back when laid up in bed. The issue is that these medicinal compounds replace, for the space of a few days, the pharmacopia of stimulants, painkillers and relaxants to which modern humans are addicted.
No alcohol while suffering the cold (except, I admit, the occasional hot toddy). Were I a smoker, I expect I would have been smoking less, if at all. And no coffee or tea. Whether this was a protective decision taken by my body, or whether I was simply drowning in Lemsip by this stage, anything with caffeine was anathema for the duration.
No wonder I felt ill.
The surprise is that it took me until this morning to realise that my overall lethargy and turgid headache were probably more to do with caffeine withdrawal than the regiments of lymphocytes still engaged on mopping up operations inside.
What I need is coffee flavour Lemsip. It’s an appalling prospect from any perspective, but you’ve got to look after your health.
Oh boy, now I know I’m ill.
The first order of the day was working out what I could achieve without getting out of bed. Sleep, sneeze, cough, sneeze and cough simultaneously and painfully, phone in sick, read listlessly: a short list indeed.
Things started to look up when, around 10am, I got it together enough for a glorious hatrick of self-pampering: hot bath, hot tea, and Test Match Special on longwave. Much like England’s top order, though, it couldn’t last.
Since that point it’s been a case of wandering about waiting for the illness to spin itself to a standstill.
I’ve been reduced to pleasure at finding things like this extensive list of rhetorical tropes, of immense use in distinguishing your epanalepsis from your epanorthosis.
Come germs! do your worst. We have not finished our contention yet, you and I.
Too ill to write, except for one brief observation that, I am sure, will have me marked as some kind of pervert even as I insist that it is made with the coldly objective eye of the fearless semiotician.
When did some girls start walking around with their arms folded? It has to be a twentieth century phenomenon.
I understand why they do it. It’s not rocket science. All I’m wondering is whether this is a modern development, related as much to clothing as to the disappearance of deportment classes. My guess is that there’s a correlation with the ubiquity of the sweater in female fashion of the 50s.
London has two basic shapes: the A-Z and the tube map. Which is dominant? Which one do you see when you attempt picture London’s geography?
More evidence for the latter turns up almost daily. Today, things snuffles up this Beck-style map of London’s motorways while As Above locates this one showing hidden underground features like subterranean rivers, sewers, deep shelters, the phased-out Post Office railway and, er, the Northern Line.
Note to self: collecting all of these in one place would pleasantly fill a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Just in time for the miracle of Christmas, here’s the first flying cathedral I’ve seen in, oh, centuries. Transported, no doubt, by angels.
Courtesy of those fine fabricators at Kubicek Balloons, collected by Ship of Fools.
It’s been a bad old twelve months for anyone with a soft spot for sixties British cinema. Last November Karel Reisz died, followed by John Schlesinger this June. In October we lost Richard Harris, and today the news is that David Hemmings has died of a heart attack, aged only 62.
Hemmings was one of those actors who, for whatever reason, just hit it at a particular moment. For him, that moment was 1966, when Antonioni’s Blow Up seemed to encapsulate Swinging London, and Hemmings to epitomise the bright young things.
At the risk of being wilfully maudlin, here’s a list of some of the film figures of that era who are now gone. I’ve only indicated one major film for each; a completely partial choice of remembrance:
2003 - David Hemmings, actor (Blow Up, 1966)
2003 - Richard Harris, actor (This Sporting Life, 1963)
2002 - John Schlesinger, director (Billy Liar, 1965)
2002 - Karel Reisz, director (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960)
1999 - Oliver Reed, actor (I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, 1967)
1995 - Jack Clayton, director (The Pumpkin Eater, 1965)
1994 - Lindsay Anderson, director (If…., 1968)
1991 - Tony Richardson, director (Tom Jones, 1963)
1991 - Carol White, actor (Poor Cow, 1967)
1977 - Peter Finch, actor (No Love for Johnnie, 1961)
1973 - Laurence Harvey (Darling, 1965)
Still with us:
Lewis Gilbert, director (Alfie, 1966)
Val Guest, director (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961)
Michael Winner, director (The System, 1964)
Ken Russell, director (Women in Love, 1969)
Ken Loach, director (Cathy Come Home, 1965)
Dick Lester, director (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
and most extraordinarily of all, Michelangelo Antonioni, director of Blow Up, born in 1912 and still working.
Of course many of the actors are still working, including Michael Caine, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Albert Finney.
Until today, when he collapsed after a long day on set, that last list included David Hemmings.
The soi-disant near-death experience has provoked all manner of concerned response, for which thanks. I can only repeat that I am fine and increasingly blasé about the whole thing. I was not hit by a large falling something, and that’s just the way I like to keep things.
I was at some irksome point in the past asked to learn about the theory of blame in accidents. This brought to my attention an extraordinary study which was used to argue that assigning blame in road accidents is largely a fruitless exercise. The study estimated that the average driver makes eight serious driving errors every five miles. Any one of these, were circumstances to fall unkindly, could lead to an accident.
That was intended to be more reassuring than it sounds.
On a brighter note, the episode resulted in Jane illuminating us with the true meaning of ‘looming’, which is delightful. Quoting Scoresby:
Under certain circumstances, all objects seen on the horizon seem to be lifted above it a distance of 2 to 4 or more minutes of altitude, or so far extended in height above their natural dimensions. Ice, lands, ships, boats and other objects when thus enlarged and elevated, are said to ‘loom’.
Other messages from the Deep North noted with glee the mention of pirates.
Ah (or perhaps arr), pirates.
I sometimes think that piracy is one of the very few professions for which I am properly qualified.
I Kidd you not.
I can raise and strike a sail, reef it and stow it. I have sea legs and know how not to lose them on a wet deck. I understand quite enough about rigging, have taken sextant readings, and I’m sure I’ve got a real ship’s log tucked away somewhere.
No, you don’t write in a ship’s log. You cast it overboard to measure your speed over the water.
What else? I can swim, which probably counts against me. I have experienced beachings (but only in the mud), a desparring and a rather unspectacular demasting (it was in a sailing dinghy).
It goes without saying that I can row. But I can also scull. What most people mean by sculling is the modern method of rowing with each person having two oars. To me, sculling is propelling a boat using only one oar. Standing up. It’s a cunning skill, even more so as you can reverse the stroke in order to go backwards.
Aside from these skills, I am ruthless, salty and consider myself to be an all round scurvy sea-dog. I am working on my looming.
What more could a pirate need?
Are spammers’ names getting more outré?
This morning I had offers of genuine prescribed medication from, amongst others, Demetrius Column, Arnulfo Mcleod and the titanically monickered Inflorescence B. Afghan.
Either there are some very bored people being forced to come up with an ever-increasing number of names or this is an escalation of the spammer-punter arms race. This arms race is based on grabbing the punter’s attention. Arguably this means grabbing attention by whatever means necessary, even if this draws attention to the fact that this is spam. You see it in subject headers too. I had one this morning titled “parenthesis maid spinal”.
The only alternative that I can imagine is that these are being sent by the sorry tail end of the once great clans of the French surrealists.
I imagine Duchamp’s grandson, struggling now to maintain the crumbling pile into which he was born, one wing of which is now entirely closed off for repairs that will never happen. All over the house heaps of grandfather’s eccentric constructions fight for floorspace with heaps of accumulated tat. That pile of damp mattresses was probably one of his, but now nobody’s quite sure. Their spring has sprung long since. The famous urinals are now pressed into service as urinals. Duchamp III is forced into hawking the familial talent for a meagre living, handcrafting and sending up to a thousand gibberish emails a day, each one uniquely absurd. “Sati fa tion gua teed!”, he types furiously, “yygd mryu”.
He knows that he is the last standard bearer of a lost movement. Magritte’s grandson has been doing cigarette advertising for years. Any surviving Dalis are fully engaged in setting editorial policy for British tabloids. This week he heard that Man Ray’s son — Boy Ray — breathed his last in a Parisian garret (which he insisted to the last was a railway carriage shaped like a woman’s behind).
Only the callow Duchamp, the end of his line, relentlessly sends out his incomplete messages into the vague night of the web, refusing to surrender his final nub of hope that some unknown Dadaist will pick one up, add to it, and send it on again, in memory of the great games of consequences once played in Paris.
A curious, rather private weekend. I don’t normally get them to myself, and I certainly wouldn’t normally take a long weekend to be at home, but sometimes it just happens regardless.
Saturday was spent firstly transporting foetid bags of garden waste to the municipal dump, a task I wouldn’t wish on George Bush. By the time I’d done that, cleaned up all the dank smudges of putrescent leaf that I’d managed to spread through the house, gone shopping and cooked a very nearly edible Creole lamb dish for myself, it was time to light the evening fire and settle down to watch Alejandro Amenabar’s first film (nasty minded rubbish; don’t bother).
Sunday, as usual, revolved around the midday football in the park. Hit the post twice and, eventually, nicked an equaliser, thank you for asking.
Today. Today was odd. I’d booked it off to go on a little shopping excursion for a small but important something I’ve been meaning to get for a while now. I got it, and the usual other bits and pieces one picks up when shopping with some time to waste; a new cartridge for my printer, which somehow cost over three times as much as the 14-disc set of ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ I picked up. Now, I’m no particular fan of Wagner, but at something like 70p per hour of volcanically serious mythomania, it’s vastly cheaper than the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films (which, in their extended forms, will be almost as long as the Ring cycle). If I start trying to annexe Austria, please remind me to change the record.
I was meaning to go to the National, but in my excitement got it all wrong. I had my valuable shopping with me by this stage (no, not the Wagner), and really didn’t want to be leaving it in the cloakroom, no matter how well attended. I’ll have to catch the Bill Viola exhibition one evening this week on my way back from work.
Walking back down the Strand, I passed one of the theatres as two workmen outside were fitting one of those eight foot tall posters into one of the glass display panels outside. I felt a whisper against the back of my neck, and half turned as the metal and glass panel smashed onto the pavement right behind me.
There is really very little you can say to someone who has nearly brained you without noticing. So I didn’t attempt any more than the basics. It certainly didn’t require more than words of one syllable.
I’m amusedly aware that I was not in the slightest unnerved by the whole incident. I’ve been trying to work out why ever since. I’ve ruled out curiosity value; being lamped by a display window may not be the way I would choose to go, but at least it would have been…theatrical. While death by defenestration has a venerable history, I suspect fenestration is altogether rarer.
I suspect that the reason why I’m not more disturbed is that windows do not look aggressive. Buses, lorries, elephants, panicking hippopotami, trains, even cars can loom menacingly towards you. Windows can only ever loom transparently. Besides, any looming that was going on was entirely behind my back. I missed the entire looming part of the process. My near-miss was entirely loomless.
Eventually, I got home to find a message from the bank. Sweet, I thought; checking that I’m safe. In reality, checking that my day’s purchases were not the result of a stolen bank card.
One final pleasure: on the doormat was a second hand book I had entirely forgotten I’d ordered; Defoe’s The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.
That’s it. Pirate ships loom. Out of the mist. They do it all the time. That, if ever was, is the way to go.