Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: Tech

Smoke signals from over the horizon

 

(Non-)Event of the year

(Please note: all necessary preparations for the historic political event scheduled for the spring of this year, a major turning point in the nation’s story, have had to be postponed until 2020, or possibly 2021, or at least the earliest feasible date thereafter, as a result of the need for careful and fully effective implementation of the prerequisite agreed national policies, when these have been  discovered.)

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Economic comment of the year (excerpt) (Cassandra, 17 August)

…fascinated by the claims that even the most ramshackle hulk can surf the crests and troughs of the world economy in effortless style provided it is manned by a crew with the buccaneering imperial spirit described so misleadingly by Percy Westerman in his books for impressionable boys back in the 1920s and 1930s.  (Poor bloody Scots, though, likely to end up tethered three to a bench in the dark underdeck if any attempt is actually made to launch the vessel.)  So who are going to be the recipients of all the wondrous bounty apparently  promised to Theresa when she sped across the ocean to hold hands with Donald Trump back in 2017, and, more important, what horn of plenty is going to disgorge the boodle?  Some will have noticed that when Jean-Claude Juncker, representing a trade bloc not hugely impressive politically but somewhat bigger than the US went over to talk sanctions with the Donald he came away with a far from unsatisfactory outcome – roughly, keeping things as they are.  What chances of that kind of semi-success when a lone economy, a mere fraction of that size, turns up at the back door of the White House, urgently needing a trade deal to stop the slide in the pound?  Begging it from a man who boasts of driving hard deals, and who by the way has his own re-election as a first  priority?

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Progress in technology

One extraordinary recent item of news was the report that accounts of a shooting in a hospital in Chicago helpfully reached viewers and readers complete with buttons provided for instant reactions, specifically labelled ‘so sad’, ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘I hope everyone is alright’.  Perhaps the report was a malicious fabrication (malicious in the view it implied about the people supposed to have been ‘consuming’ the reports) but there is no need to overegg that pudding here, since I’m confident that any fully normal human being can effortlessly think of half a dozen adjectives with added expletives to describe such a practice (if it did indeed take place).   To take just one dismaying aspect of the report, i.e. the idea that people could welcome a chance to move on to another issue as fast as possible past an expression of sympathy for people caught in a disaster or tragedy, there is unfortunately evidence to support the idea that a ‘need’ for speed trumps (le mot juste) human feeling, as well as effective comprehension, common sense, and (probably in nearly all cases) benefit in practice.  According to data recently reported on French television: in 2004 average attention span of  those scientifically tested was 3 minutes; in 2012, 1 minute and 12 seconds; in 2018 (as millennials started to move into adult life), 45 seconds.

   Further exciting innovations can doubtless be devised.  If the outcomes of such ‘assistance’ are recorded in enough detail, broadcasters can build up data banks recording the buttons typically favoured by ‘consumers’ according to the type of tragedy involved and the social and personal data of their readerships and viewerships, and publish for instance that ‘our data analytics based on previous scoring in news reports identify with 95% probability that 56% of readers (and 81% of viewers in personal care occupations) will have felt deeply moved by the attack on this woman’.  This will save the busy viewer at home from having to click on any buttons at all, or indeed feeling the need to engage in any thought process whatever.

   (Possibly relevant: the very well documented decline in average i.q. in virtually all ‘developed’ countries over the past 30 years.)

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Progress in modern reasoning

Few today will have heard of the cooking pot theory of reasoning adumbrated by Josiah Underhill in his Dispositions of the Human Sense of 1658.  Underhill held that human reasoning can be likened to the physical events affecting vegetables simmering in a pot of stew.  The stew, approximately comparable to the ether in the Newtonian physics which was soon to sweep poor Underhill’s musings into oblivion, was taken to be the medium within which objects of thought  (approximately equivalent to ‘ideas’ in ordinary parlance – today they would be called ots) drift, in motions which are in principle unpredictable.  Unless some outside force, such as a wooden ladle wielded by an observer, interferes, contact between two pieces of vegetable matter in the stew is likely to be a random factor, but the different modes of contact between different kinds of vegetable would correspond, he proposed, to different kinds of thought – statements, questions, contradictions, inferences, and so on, and of course the higher the temperature of the stew, the greater the number of interactions.

   Curiously, some recent work in human error research bears an uncanny resemblance to views that might have seemed well judged to Underhill.  A team from the news institute attached to the Foundation for Adding to Knowledge and Education, based somewhere near Mar-a-lago in deepest Florida, currently claims to have discovered proof of the existence of what one of them has termed ‘black-hole thought’.  The institute is  already developing a well funded programme to exploit their discovery ‘for the benefit of all right-thinking citizens of this great country of ours’.  Their view is that black-hole thought may develop when psychological matter, however defined, forms an accretion around any of a wide variety of what, for want of a more suitable term, may be called ideas.  In the first stage of the process, a nuance or minor idea comes to be assumed as present when some other idea is used, even if there is no natural or necessary link between them.  For instance, in Britain in the present era, the notion of train is often associated with the notions of ‘delay’, and ‘chaos’.  But this level concerns only relatively superficial matters belonging to the lexicon of a language.  A different state of affairs is involved when two ideas are taken to be necessarily connected, as when it was taken for granted in many countries until quite recently that a television ‘presenter’ would certainly be a person with a ‘caucasian’ complexion.  In cases like that, if enough mental interaction was induced – if in Underhill’s terms the temperature of the surrounding stew was raised sufficiently – it would usually be possible for the accreted element to become detached from its host .  But this is still not the phenomenon for which the term ‘black-hole thought’ is appropriate.  That is reached when people believe they are no longer dealing with matters of linguistic usage, but with aspects and elements in the world they see around them.  They feel that what they observe has no need to be treated as a combination of parts which can be separated mentally, using language as the tool of analysis, but is instead a unitary element available for direct inspection – a Ding an sich in fact.  This attitude – ‘it is what it is and there’s nothing to argue about’ appears to be especially favoured when dealing with views on social and political issues, even when a truly independent observer might well feel able to distinguish different aspects in what is observed, and consider that treating such data as unanalysable wholes requires heroic feats of self-deception.or misinterpretation.  Inevitably disputes arise.  The observer who believes he or she is dealing with an unanalysable whole will regard any remark or observation whatever about it as amounting to recognition and therefore as confirmation of its existence.  In practice and especially in politics, when a view becomes widely or vehemently promulgated, any evidence in the vicinity, whether confirming or refuting will tend to be received by its proponents as supportive, irrespective of whether it would be confirming or refuting in the eyes of truly independent observers.  New input to a view is in effect trapped and thereby added to the volume of support for it, as far as supporters are concerned.  Some would probably like to cite Marxist economic theory as a fine instance.  A notable current example is the view that to understand the world around you it is necessary to be connected to the internet.

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footnote

That admirable policy of trying to return cultural treasures to their original and rightful owners is causing increasing irritation to governments around the globe.  It was reported last week that the Welsh assembly is to demand that the bluestones used in the construction of Stonehenge should be returned as part of their national heritage

 

 

Tech Supplement

I already noted some years ago that most of the answer to the question ‘How will civilisation end?’ is ‘It already has.  It’s only technology that is goose-stepping on, trampling humane interests underfoot.’  There are a few spots on the planet where so far that answer would be a little unfair and I have just returned from one of them which despite its obsession with ‘business’ scores better than most on the civilisation parameter (a word they like to use) as well as getting a whole galaxy of gold stars for the tech stuff.  But travelling there and back raised an issue which is rather troubling, namely the instructions to passengers on most airlines about what to do if the pilot reports ‘Sorry about this.  The plane will be ditching in approximately ten seconds from now.’  At the start of the flight the three passengers actually paying attention on any given aircraft are shown the posture to adopt if things go that badly wrong.  Now I’m not an expert but it looks to me that the said posture gives an extraordinarily high chance of a broken neck accompanied by instant death.  Is it safe to assume that there is no link, no link at all, to the different sums involved in paying compensation to the family of a passenger killed in an air crash and to an accident victim who lives on for thirty years as a paraplegic?

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Editorial for UK edition Truth is the first casualty in government, as everyone knows, so nobody should hold it against the Donald if he readies himself for his time at the head of the nation that is leading the world into the post-truth era with a few dozen campaign promises.  All that’s really needed with a campaign promise is that it should sound good at the time and place where it comes out.  It’s a different matter for the  official statements that emerge when you have actually won control of the puppet-strings of power, because then those listening can judge whether what you say really stacks up properly beside what they can observe for themselves.  Theresa May’s remarks in Downing Street immediately after getting her fiercely studied shoes onto Number 10’s doormat can just about be excused as still being at the level of a campaign promise.  The statements now emitted from that address asserting that the crisis in the once admired National Health Service is the fault of the doctors are preposterous.  At best crass ineptitude, at a time when British doctors are under more pressure from all sides, to do more, to know more, to fill in more official requirements, and when 1,300,000 patients call on general practitioners in a single day. The government has not only disgracefully failed to meet its duties to the nation – and remember the Health Service exists not only to serve people individually but also to help the nation as a whole to maintain good enough health to do its jobs.  Attempts to blame the doctors for the difficulties caused by the government’s own decision to spend the nation’s money in other ways are nothing less than shameful.

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Technological progress (i) (A contribution from Kevin V. Solmsen, Nairobi)

Don’t know if this is good news or not.  Drones and helicopters may not be blasting away at the terrorists on the world’s battlefields (nor at the world’s hospitals, and wedding receptions) much longer.  The reason is that while technology has raced ahead ahead in small-scale aerial tech, the research aimed at increasing the power of lasers, although slower, is continuing steadily.  Quite simply, before very long it will be quite easy to shoot down the drones while sitting before a screen in a secure office equipped with air-conditioning and free muzak (whether you want it or not) hundreds of miles from any battle-front, in other words in the same sort of laid-back style available to the drone-handlers themselves.  But as a laser-handler you will have the advantage that you don’t need to sweat too much about hunting for targets.  You only have to check it’s happening according to plan.  Simply put your defense apparatus in place along with sensors which will detect anything coming across the relevant frontier and assess its speed and size, and decide automatically whether to  bring its flight to a definite conclusion.  Bad luck for bats and owls, but if you’re in the killing business, bound to be some collateral d.  Good news for states rich enough and advanced enough to ring their entire frontier with the right materiel, to face off anything except multiple ballistic missiles.  And insider your defensive arc you can use your own drones to bring a definite conclusion to incoming ground troops.  The implications for those investing in helicopter production are not too rosy though, but hey there’ll still be a good internal market for helicopters for civilian uses.

Editor comments: Also bad news for some in the Middle East who thought they could get away with using reconnaissance drones by disguising them as eagles?

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Curious fact  A recent French media report added a little more fuel to the political climate change which is bringing increasing pollution to the international atmosphere and in particular leaving Russia under a dark cloud.  Of course every country needs a certain amount of hostility to other countries, especially its neighbours, to maintain its own identity.  (Failure there is what went wrong with the now rapidly collapsing attempt to engineer a European Union.)  However, while this French report contained a generally acceptable level of hostility to Russia it included a seriously unhelpful note by saying we should not trust a country which does not trust its own population, citing a claim that 11% of the inhabitants were subject to government electronic surveillance.  Now, most observers are under a strong impression that any country in the West which secretly watched fewer than 50% of its own population would be unusually careless or – if you like – unusually free.  It seems safe to guess that those governments which are able to do so keep tabs on more or less 100% of their own population whatever they admit in public, often with a good proportion of the populations of other countries into the bargain, all of course in the interests of protection and maintaining high standards of civil order.   (If it also helps to keep those who share political control of those countries in political comfort, well that is doubtless just an entirely unintended side effect.)

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Technological progress (ii) / Linguistic corner Approaching at speed and soon to be in an adult-toy store near you: a device which will accept spoken input and turn it into beautiful calligraphy in a style and language of your choice.  (Perhaps you would like to try the style devised and published by Lucas Materot in 1608, but the language of course is up to you.)  It goes without saying that you will have to learn the clicks, grunts, hisses, and sucking noises which will be needed to take care of the punctuation, and whistles too if you choose a language which has accents.  That is vital, since omission of punctuation except occasionally for reasons of speed is a sign of inadequate education or simple stupidity.  (Do you think ‘He didn’t take the gun because he was scared’ means the same thing as ‘He didn’t take the gun, because he was scared’ ?  If you mean ‘What he said was “Garbage!”’ would you write ‘What he said was garbage’ ?)

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Political punditry  Remember : nine pundits out of ten can’t tell the difference between ‘clever’ and ‘noisy’ when they’re talking about someone in the news (including and especially themselves).

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Technological progress (iii)  Many problems about driverless cars have been haggled over pretty well – so long as you’re looking at the car itself from the inside. It is far from clear that all the external issues have been properly taken into account by the enthusiasts who have got sore throats through running around their neighbourhoods gabbling about wonders to come when significant numbers of driverless cars finally hit the road, as well as hitting cyclists, and dim-witted overexcited dogs, and ditto children, and even dimmer-witted black plastic bags blown onto the road by gusts of wind.  Never mind the appalling confusion when the mix is 50/50 and real drivers rely on the avoidance responses of  cars which turn out to have reckless incompetent or drunk humans at the wheel.  Never mind the malicious hackers exploring what they can make a hacked car do (inaugurating a new golden age of highway robbery?) Are these things going to work in more dimensions than 2 or only on broad level California freeways?   Will they notice if a sinkhole opens up on the route they have chosen?  Will they react appropriately where a human driver could spot teenage refugees from approved behaviour patterns dropping plastic bags filled with paint from a highway bridge?  Those of course are fairly rare problems, but demonstrators are going to have the time of their lives, probably bringing large nations to a standstill.  To give just one example, in France there is always some protest movement doing its best to annoy the bourgeois, but famers will no longer need to summon 30,000 peasants from the deep countryside to block a main traffic route with their tractors.  All they need do is send along three or four men each with a pig to be  gently and repeatedly taken back and forth across the road at different points a few hundred metres apart, while with further development in other technologies even the pig might not actually be necessary; it could be enough to have the accomplice at the roadside holding a small portable sonar device firing a barrage of signals at oncoming traffic while the road is crossed by a hologram of the pig.

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Technological progress (iv)

Meanwhile research in the field of genetic engineering continues to race ahead.  A recent closed-door invitation-only congress sponsored by the US government was said to have heard accounts of astonishing developments.   Very strict secrecy was enforced both for commercial reasons and because it was considered that many advances had potential military applications.  It is believed that achievements included not merely poisonous 20lb rats and bionic dogs able to read basic instructions in a form of morse code, but modified crocodiles able to swim the equivalent of five kilometres underwater in under twenty minutes with a two kilogram load strapped to a ventral pod.  One source however claims that after a long debate the congress came down firmly in favour of an embargo on further work  on higher species, allegedly citing a need to avoid competition at some point in the future from genetically modified genetic engineers.

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Thought for the day

It is not hard to think of phrases to describe Blair’s efforts to finagle his way into British politics again but most of them are unprintable