Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Reconsideration of Values

It has been just over a year since I started this blog. The core idea was to examine the phenomenon of digital technology gradually replacing the physical objects it is based on, concentrating especially on ebooks. How's it all going?

I still don't have a Kindle, but I did try out the Kindle app on my late smartphone (broke in a moment of frustration and abandoned). I downloaded 'Ulysess' and read bits of it at work in spare moments, but then I started playing online chess on my phone again and stopped reading Ulysees. It was fun for a while, and also it's looks slightly less lazy if you're sitting in the staff room looking at your phone. If you've got a large book in your lap, you might as well have your feet up.

Max, the French boy at work, has a Kindle. He brings it in to work to read in spare moments. He has read all the Game of Thrones books on it. I suppose it's handy because he can easily get French language books. I wonder whether the flour of the bakery will affect the Kindle, but then they do seem like very robust things, surprisingly close to imitating non-computers.

Though I don't want a Kindle and still regularly read physical books, I'm considering publishing a novella I have written as an ebook. It's so easy. You just upload it to Amazon with a picture and there it is: anyone can buy it and read it. I have misgivings, one of which is the fact that Amazon don't pay enough taxes and I've been trying to avoid them. It's certainly not the ultimate dream of getting published, but it might be a way to get there. Perhaps one must embrace technology wholeheartedly or not at all.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Luzhin Defense Defence

I got 'The Luhzin Defence' by Vladimir Nabokov out from the library. I had just read 'Lolita' by the same author and enjoyed it very much, and on a whim I thought I'd read another of his works. It was concise and poetic, a lyrical exploration of the complex metaphorical and metaphysical powers of chess. I hope to write a longer post about the book for Pixelled Wheels World of Books. 

As I came to the final page of the afterword by author, John Updike, I discovered this note:

Look at that indignation! It almost seems like a threat. 'Watch out, Updike! Bad move.' Imagine how angry you would have to be to write a note like that and put in a library book, for everyone to see, more so than if you just posted on a Nabokov message board online. 

The afterword that this reader was so enraged by was mostly complimentary - in fact I thought it was a bit over praiseworthy in places - and only slightly critical towards the end, concerning the young Nabokov's weaknesses. I suppose some people get very protective over their heroes.

As it happens, I know who wrote the note, because he wrote it on what was presumably his library ticket. It says he got the book out at 11:03 on 9th August 2011 along with 'True at First Light' and 'Labels: A Mediterranean j…'. I won't reveal his name.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Google Glass As Extended Mind

Using Google Glass, the glasses which project an interactive digital interface onto your field of vision, is like being the Terminator or Iron Man. Instead of looking at what's in your environment and using just your brain to interpret the information, now you have a computer always there to do it for you. You don't need to try and remember something manually, you can just look it up on your ever-present search engine. You can say 'google maps' and a map system appears over the real roads, then you say 'go to Fleet Street' (or something) and Google Glass shows you arrows to guide you. You don't have to work out your own position on the map or orientate yourself, you don't even have to get your phone out.

We have a situation where it becomes so convenient to use technology, it would be illogical and highly inefficient to use our own brains to work something out. It would be the stubbornness of a sentimental  Luddite. You don't try and remember your shopping list in your mind; you write it down, you accept the limitations of your brain and seek help from technology. The rationale for using Google Glass is just a simple extrapolation of this logic.

David Chalmers, philosopher, talks about 'the extended mind' (see video below). He thinks that we should not see ever-present technology as separate to our minds but as an active part of them. If we always have the technology with us, then it may as well be an extension of our brains. It's not lazy to look something up on Google as opposed to trying to remember it, it's efficient, it's evolution. Google's memory is your memory. 

When Google Glass becomes widespread, technology will finally be part of us, one step closer to a ubiquitous chip in the brain. Futurologists of the past got it wrong: the robots won't become sentient and take over, we will become robots ourselves, and this might be a good thing.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

'Le Papier a un Grand Avenir'

The case in favour of real vs. digital made by a French toilet paper company. 'Paper has a great future.'

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Insidious Power of Google Books?

Following on from the 'libraries of the future' cartoon below, the library of the closer, foreseeable near-future might well be 'Google Books'. 

There was a documentary on BBC Iplayer (it's not on there any more) about Google's quest to scan all the books existing in the world. It focussed on the illegality of Google's venture - they didn't ask the permission of any of the authors - but also on the power it would give Google. 

Books are information. Information is power. Not only will Google have all this  information about us and our online activity, but they will have direct access to every page of every book in the world. What can they do with all this information? That's not completely clear. The implication is that they might have some evil world-conquering scheme in mind, and even if they don't at the moment, they would certainly have the potential for such domination, and that's scary enough.

Of course we must consider the potential for good in Google's scheme. The idea of having a library of every book ever goes back to Alexandria in 300BC, and it's a noble quest. Maybe Google just want to make the world a better place, a world where as much information as possible is available to everyone. If that is the case, we have nothing to worry about, but we must consider the possibility of our (or our children's) downfall at the hands of a powerful digital monopoly.

In the BBC Horizon documentary, impressive, dreadlocked technology prophet, Jaron Lanier leads the scaremongering, laughing at the ignorance of the old-world fools in charge who don't understand the future that is awaiting them if they don't do something about Google. And it is quite convincing. If the general tendency towards digitalisation continues, you can't help but believe we might all be putting ourselves in quite a vulnerable position by living our lives through the internet and leaving detailed digital crumb trails everywhere we go.

Read more about Google Books here.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas story

A story set in the future:

The Difference Between a Kiss and a Cannon

A Christmas story/play
By Thom Punton

It’s winter now but inside it’s warm. A couple in advancing years sit in their living room on a December evening. Dinner has been eaten and now, with the television and heating on, they sit, one on the sofa, one on the old padded chair, resting their fattening work-tired bodies like most days. The routine quietens any stirrings of panic in their souls. It’s a comfortable situation.

The television displays the technicolor balls and baize of the UK snooker championship, now entering the quarter-final stage. The lady half of the couple has learnt to endure the televisual presence of this colourful 'sport' when it comes around. At first it seemed to her the most boring thing imaginable but now she appreciates its calming influence - an island in a sea of loud, insistent broadcasting.

Enhancing the post-prandial contentment is a faint feeling of specialness and expected excitement. It is Christmas. And it changes the despair of Winter into something hopeful for a while.

There is a Christmas tree over there by the window adornèd with homemade stuffed monsters and foil stars, wrapped with light bulbs, messy and blinking in forced good spirit. There is an old-school New Testament chocolateless advent calendar on the mantelpiece. The man half of the couple likes the story revealed piecemeal throughout the month. He doubts its divine origin, but there is always space for a little magic, especially at this time of the year.

The two snooker players on the television are struggling to settle in the first frame of their quarterfinal. Both are missing easy pots. Neither will settle until they have their first frame on the board.

The husband is happy to watch patiently as the balls interact with their human agents. The wife knits scarves for new nephews, glancing between stitches and snooker. The commentators are describing the action in a language developed for this unique environment. One of them, Dennis Taylor, says: ‘that was a superb cannon he played there.’

The woman asks her husband, ‘what’s the difference between a kiss and a cannon?’

He considers.

‘You know, I’m not really sure. I’ve never been able to work it out. It might be that a cannon is er more of a direct hit than a kiss. A kiss is just a glancing blow, a cannon is more direct. Or maybe a kiss is unintentional.’

He had always thought it would be amusing to say ‘that’s a lovely kiss,’ like the snooker commentators do, after his wife has kissed him, but it would probably spoil the moment.

‘But that cannon wasn’t very direct.’

‘Yeah I don’t know. Maybe they both mean the same thing. Or it might be that a cannon is when the cue ball hits another ball after the object ball. They always say ‘he’ll be cannoning into the pack of reds here.’ Yeah I think that’s probably it.’

‘Oh OK.’

There is a knock at the door.

‘Who could that be?’ she asks, ‘at this time?’

‘I don’t bloody know. I’ll go and find out, shall I?’

He says this in jest, not irritation, as he rises from the chair with a groan of effort, so ensconced in the chair was he, so advanced in age are his rusty joints.

At the door is a man. He is wearing a big long tweedy coat somewhere between an expensive businessman’s coat and a tramp’s. On his head is a hat with furry flaps like the kids wear, and though they are as yet unnoticed, there are Nike trainers on his feet.

‘Hello,’ the visitor says, ‘are you Mr. Benjamin Alstow?’

‘Yes I am.’

‘Hello, sorry to bother you at this time in the evening. My name’s Joe. I am here on behalf of an experimental council tax initiative. May I come in and discuss it with you?’

Mr. Alstow is immediately suspicious.

He has heard of conmen who smooth talk their way into people’s homes and then refuse to leave until they have swindled some money out of them with passive threats like ‘your home will fall down unless you buy my insurance’.

‘Can I see some ID?’

‘Oh yes, of course.’

The taxman gladly digs into his bag and produces a leather ID holster showing a believable council representative card. His name is Joe Barrett. There’s his picture all smily and trustworthy. Seems like it isn’t a fake.

‘Are we in trouble?’

‘Oh no. No. Well. It’s rather complicated. It might be best if I come in out of the cold and discuss it with you and your wife. Is your wife in?’

‘Well, yes, yes she is. OK, come in. Sorry.’

‘Thank you.’

Ben leads the council representative into his home, down the wallpapered hallway and through the door on the right.

‘Estella, there’s a man here from the council to speak with us.’

She is slightly surprised by this intrusion and quickly tries to switch from the comfort of privacy to a more public behavioural subset.

Ben offers Joe a cup of tea but he declines with thanks. He takes a seat on the sofa next to Estella who shuffles up to make room. Ben sits back in his armchair.

‘Who’s winning?’ Joe asks, referring to the snooker. It’s unclear whether he’s genuinely interested or not.

Ben answers: ‘It’s only just started.’

‘OK, well, I’m sorry to disturb you both. Hello Mrs. Alstow, I’m Joe and as I told your husband, I’m here on behalf of a, shall-we-say, ‘experimental’ tax-assessment initiative. This is the first town we have tried it in.'

Mrs. Alstow: Do we have to pay more tax?

Joe: Well, it’s complicated. Let me explain.

Mrs. Alstow: Cos we already pay enough tax without another expensive bureaucratic thing. What is it? A QUANGO?

Joe: Well in fact Mrs. Alstow you might be entitled to a rebate. Let me explain. A new independent branch of the council has been created. It’s called S.A.M.T.A, the Seasonal Association for Morality-based Tax Assessment. The idea is that every year, around Christmas, the time of the year when we all need that little bit of extra cash, every family will have the chance to recoup some of their tax payments and as the name suggests,

(He is talking here as if he is saying lines, as if he has said all this many times before.)

SAMTA takes personal morality into account, things like your contribution to the local community, criminal records, how quickly you pay your bills or rent, and so on and also, to give us an even clearer picture of a person’s relative morality, we use data from the internet, social media for instance. We have access to all the information you have made public, and with this we can often discover if you have made any immoral decisions over the last year. The evidence obtained from this information is obviously mostly irrelevant. It would make it a lot easier if we could just read your emails! But sometimes we CAN piece together whether anything immoral has been done, just like detectives. Now, I realise you might think of this as an invasion of your privacy but we only have access to what you have voluntarily made public. And we use this information to assess where you are on the morality scale of your area. If you are above average you will be granted a tax rebate and if you are below average you will be charged a supplementary fee.

Mrs. Alstow: Is this legal?

Joe: Oh yes of course. And I must emphasise that this is only a trial. It hasn’t been decided if it’s going to be tried on a national scale yet. We’re just going to see how this goes and if it works, there will probably be a national vote. But this is just the trial.

Mr. Alstow: Doesn’t seem right to me.

Mrs. Alstow: I think it sounds good. If you don’t do anything wrong, you’ll be rewarded for it. And we’re good people, I think we’re above average morality, don’t you think?

Mr. Alstow: Oh yes, of course. It’s just intrusive. It’s too controlling if you ask me.

Joe: Well, here’s the thing, Mr. Alstow, as this is just a trial, you can decide whether or not you want to know the results of your assessment. If you’re above average morality, you’ll receive a rebate and if you’re below, you’ll have to pay the charge I’m afraid, but it’s completely up to you.

Mrs. Alstow: Well, let’s do it, we haven’t got anything to hide.

Mr. Alstow: I’m not so sure.

Mrs. Alstow: You don’t have anything to hide, do you, Ben?

Mr. Alstow: No, of course not, Stella, of course not.

He realises his reluctance to take part might reflect badly on him.

Mr. Alstow (to Joe): Can we have some time to think about this?

Joe: I’m afraid I have to have an answer now, or I’ll just put you down as a no. If you like I can come back in five minutes, give you a bit of time to talk it over?

Mr. Alstow: Yes please, that would be good.

The taxman gets up, says ‘I’ll see you in a bit,’ and goes outside to smoke a cigarette.

Mr. Alstow has a look of fear in his eyes.

‘Stella, this man is a fraud. He’s just after our money, even if he makes it seem like we’re gonna get a tax rebate, he’ll make us sign something, take our bank details and. Rob. Us. Blind. I’ve seen these things on the TV. Just because he makes it all seem believable, with his ID card, and long words, that doesn’t mean it’s not fake, it just means he’s put a lot of effort into fooling people. Did you see his shoes? Christ, did you see his eyes?! He’s an addict, I’m sure of it.

Mrs. Alstow (placatorily): Ben, you’re not making sense. You’re being paranoid. You even saw his ID! It’s obviously just his job. I don’t think we’ve got anything to lose.

Mr. Alstow (desperate squeak): Nothing to lose!? He’ll take our money! I’m going to call the police. Why didn’t we get a letter? Why didn’t we get a phone call? Does this not all seem very strange to you?

Mrs. Alstow (with great dreaming hope): I just, don’t you think it would be so nice if people like us, people who never break the law, never do anything wrong, could get something as a reward for our efforts? And a little extra cash would be so nice for Christmas, we could have the heating on for as long as we want, we could buy luxury mince pies.

Mr. Alstow: He’s a fraud, I’m sure of it. I’m calling the police.

Mrs. Alstow: No! Don’t be so paranoid.

(There is a knock at the door.)

Mrs. Alstow: He’s back. Look let’s just see how it goes. If it looks dodgy, then we’ll back out.

Mr. Alstow: I don’t like this.

Mrs. Alstow is taking control of the situation. She leaves the living room, hardly listening to her husband’s answer and she goes to let Joe, the man from SAMTA back in the house.

Joe: So, have you made your decision?

Mrs. Alstow: Yes, we’d like to see the results of our assessment.

Joe: Wonderful, let’s have a look then.

He puts his bag on the coffee table and slides out a folder and rummages around in it. Mr Alstow gets up, ‘are you sure you don’t want anything to drink, Joe? How about a brandy?’

Joe: Oh, that would be nice, thank you.

Mr. Alstow goes to the table behind the sofa, which has a big brandy bottle on it and some small crystal tumblers. Joe is still sorting through papers. Mr. Alstow weighs the brandy bottle in his hands. It is still almost full. Its wide rounded bottom is smooth heavy glass. He knows what he must do and he knows it must be done now without delay, and so like a stealth ninja, he manoeuvres the bottle upended and swings it back, his teeth digging into his bottom lip in determination and then, BÜH!, hits the fraudster in the side of the head.

It’s difficult to hit someone hard enough to knock them out, but not so hard that it kills them. Mr. Alstow had a little experience in knocking people out and was confident he could get it just right. As his victim slumps towards Mrs. Alstow on the sofa, it’s clear he had at least knocked him out. Hopefully he isn’t dead.

Mrs. Alstow is shocked into silence as she avoids the body slumping her way.

‘What the HECK are you doing!?’, she finally shouts, ‘you better bloody well hope you haven’t killed him. I can’t believe you did that. You might have given him brain damage. At least. Oh God.’

(Snooker continues unempathetic in the background.)

Mr. Alstow is calmly phoning the police as she rants, telling them he has apprehended an intruder in his house. He has regrettably knocked him unconscious with a brandy bottle. Could they please hurry round before he wakes up?

And then he tries to calm his wife down:

‘Stella calm down. I’m sorry I had to do this, but I just didn’t trust him. He’s a no-good fraudster, he needs to be caught and put in jail.’

They both go over to the unconscious body. Mr. Alstow lifts an eyelid. The eye is rolled up as far as it will go.

Mrs. Alstow: Oh God, what if he wakes up? What’re we going to do then?

Mr. Alstow: I’ll tie his hands up. Have we got rope or wire or anything? I know…

He’s goes out of the room and gets some old broken guitar leads and ties the hands and feet of the hostage together as tight as he can.

Mrs. Alstow: You better not have killed him, Ben.

Mr. Alstow: I haven’t killed him. Look, he’s hardly bleeding.

Mrs. Alstow: Yes he is, look, it’s all on the sofa. Bloody hell. This is a bloody awful mess.

Mr. Alstow goes to console his wife.

‘Look, it’s all going to be fine. The police will sort it out. Even if he is who he says he is, they won’t arrest me, it was just self-defence. Maybe he is who he says he is, but that wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I had to ensure our safety.’

Mrs. Alstow (looking sorrowfully at the unconscious man): I just don’t think he seemed like the kind of man who would rob us.

Mr. Alstow: That’s what he wants you to think.


Mrs. Alstow: When are the police going to get here? Did you call them?

Mr. Alstow: Yes, they’ll be here any minute.


Mrs. Alstow: Do you think if he is really part of that tax assessment thing, we’ll still get our money?

Mr. Alstow: Stella, I think we should forget about that.

Mrs. Alstow (going to the papers on the coffee table): I wonder how much we would’ve got.

Mr. Alstow: I don’t think we should look at that.

Mrs. Alstow: Why not? What have you done? Have you got something to hide? Is that why you clonked him with the brandy bottle? Is that why you’re so scared? What have you done?

Mr. Alstow: Nothing! I haven’t done anything! Have a look if you must.

She goes to have a look, riffles through until she finds the right page.

Mrs. Alstow: Here we are. It says we have to pay 50 quid. We’re not getting anything. We’ve got to pay 50 quid extra! But we haven’t done anything wrong! Well, I haven’t anyway. It must be you.

Mr. Alstow: No, look, Stella, I promise I haven’t done anything wrong, that’s just their scam, isn’t it, no one gets any money because it’s all a fraud.

Mrs. Alstow is silent and angry.

Mr. Alstow: Besides how do I know you haven’t done something?

Mrs. Alstow (crescendoing with rage): How dare you!

Mr. Alstow: Well you’re accusing me!

Mrs. Alstow: Yeah, that’s because I know I haven’t done anything wrong.

Mr. Alstow: Look, you have to trust me. This thing is a fraud and when the police come and we sort this all out, then you’ll see.

She is angry. She doesn’t trust him.

Mrs. Alstow: I’m going upstairs. You can sort this mess out. I’ve had enough.

She does as she has threatened and goes upstairs. Mr Alstow is left with his hostage tied up on the floor. He looks down at him and notices his eyes are open. Joe, the hostage is awake. There is fear in those open eyes.

Mr. Alstow: Oh good. You’ve woken up.