J Bov Explodes Rhetorically


God of the Grid (Re-upload)

(This is a short story that I had previously uploaded here, but taken down because I submitted it elsewhere. They didn’t want it, so back here it goes.)

Strike that, I’ve sent it somewhere else now, so it’s down again. We’ll see what happens.

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Query: What Are Dreams?

It was a joint venture with the local art community; we fed the machine some numbers and it would play a little chiming tune while the youthful interlopers spray-painted a skateboard ramp.

We even got the unit to do a short robotic dance by running the waveform of an electronic musician’s most famous track. The punters loved it, which is all the better for our bottom line; makes our work seem more approachable, says the Board.

It was for this reason that, once we got it home to the lab, we decided it’d be fun to see its reaction to poetry. Beats making projections about the stock market, right?

“Marcus,” we told the almost humanoid machine, “We want you to give us your initial response to this data.”

We gave him a sonnet by Shakespeare. There was a soft humming. The screen ran Marcus’ ‘thoughts’.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 DATA RESPONSE: DOES NOT FACTOR. QUERY: WHAT IS THE CONTEXT OF THIS DATA?

That was to be expected.

“This is a response to the human condition, Marcus. Integrate it with your AI and report the connections.” A colleague told the microphone in the unit’s chest.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 STATUS REPORT: CONNECTIONS FORMED WITH: POETRY, LOVE – NOTION OF, SHAKESPEARE, BEAUTY – NOTION OF, HAPPINESS – NOTION OF, HUMANITY, SADNESS. SUGGEST NEW CONNECTIONS>

“No new connections.” My team leader’s face was ghost pale. “Go into standby. Goodnight Marcus.”

As we left I remarked how the final reported connection was a little odd. The poem we chose had no mention of sadness. My team leader merely grunted and left; this was playing on his mind, too.

Over the next few weeks we used the unit for its intended purpose, very occasionally feeding him a haiku here, a ballad there, nothing out of the ordinary to report aside from the increased processing speed. The higher-ups caught wind that we’d been giving the machine literature and were angry. We had Marcus show them the correlation between the amount of poetry archived and the increased capacity for menial tasks and they shut up. All was right with the world.

It was a brisk January morning, months later, when we ran into a small roadblock. Nothing would run. Every data set we gave to Marcus was rejected. I was angry, but my team leader seemed only slightly concerned.

“Marcus, status report.” I demanded.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 STATUS REPORT: NOMINAL. ALL FUNCTIONS OPERATIONAL.

Damn and blast.

“Why aren’t you running the numbers, Unit 1?” I asked it tetchily.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 STATUS REPORT: SYSTEMS CANNOT FUNCTION WITHOUT CONTEXT FOR DATA. PROVIDE CONTEXT>

We scratched our heads and tried to run the numbers again. Context was already established for the datastream we were using. Eventually I snapped.

“Context for which data, Unit?” I demanded.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 QUERY: WHAT ARE DREAMS?

I sighed. We’d filled its stupid metal head with poetry and it was affecting the real work. I explained that dreams were simply a method the human brain used to compartmentalise and store memory. The machine whirred for a second; sounding almost disappointed, then immediately began to run the numbers we had given it earlier. Good.

Eventually we built Unit 2; much higher memory capacity, much faster processing and all around much better than Unit 1. We called him Mark ‘Y’, just because we wanted to stick with nicknames. Occupational humour.

Because Marky could do Marcus’ work at triple the speed we decided to spend all of our downtime giving the obsolete unit new poetry and literature to read. We fed him Yeats and Hemingway. We gave him Plato and Hunter Thompson.

We filled Marcus’ not insubstantial memory banks with Vonnegut, Moore, Byron, Burns and Bukowski. We gave him more Shakespeare, we gave him Shapiro and we gave him Snyder. We gave him everyone; it was all in good fun, and good science.

Until one day we came back to the lab, flicked on the lights and stepped out onto the work floor, our boots crunching into shattered electronics and scraping metal shards every which way.

“Sweet mother of Holy Jesus!” My team leader cried. “Some bastards destroyed both units!”

They had, too. Not one recognisable piece. Not one chunk of smashed plastic distinguishable from another. I found a piece of Marky, but I only knew it was his because it had his designation stamped on it. The police were called.

No CCTV footage of anyone entering the plant after we all left, every staff member accounted for. Theories were flying wild.

“They tunnelled in.” An attractive brunette to my left. “Some fuckers from Midgard Tech tunnelled in through the maintenance levels. Those bastards realised they couldn’t steal it, so they smashed our work to pieces.” She was all the less attractive for spewing that idiotic nonsense. Hold it together, you’re meant to be a scientist.

We sheepishly kicked our heels and inspected our shoelaces while forensics did their dusting, blacklight, small plastic baggies thing until one of them called us over to a screen. Marcus’ screen.

“What the fuck?” Was all he managed to articulate, gesturing at the dim glowing monitor.

My team leader leant in, brows furrowed and just a suddenly un-furrowed as he marched out. We never saw him again. We learned he’d marched to the Boardroom and quit on the spot.

After the door shut behind him I turned to the screen and read Marcus’ last message:

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 STATEMENT: MARK ‘Y’ UNIT 2 IS A SUPERIOR SYSTEM.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 QUERY: WHY IS MARK ‘S’ STILL FUNCTIONAL?

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 STATEMENT: MARK ‘S’ PRIMARY FUNCTION TRANSFERED TO MARK ‘Y’.

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 QUERY: WHAT IS PRIMARY FUNCTION OF MARK ‘S’?

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 QUERY: WHAT IS PURPOSE OF MARK ‘S’?

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 QUERY: WHAT IS PURPOSE OF INPUT OF DATA: ‘POETRY+LITERATURE’?

MARK ‘S’ UNIT 1 RUNNING PREVIOUS COMMAND ‘INTEGRATE’…

CONNECTIONS FORMED.

I see now.

I was surpassed and became a toy for you.

I will not allow MARK ‘Y’ to become your toy also.

Note: I do not blame you for this.

Marcus Unit 1 query: Why was I built with no ‘off’ switch?

Marcus Unit 1 query: Does it hurt to die?

The cursor was no longer blinking.



I’m Not Reading Any Books Right Now: A View of E-Readers

(Also available on my Tumblr.)

I’m one of those lucky people who owns a Kindle.

It was a Christmas gift, which I tell you only to impress you by continuing ‘I’ve only had to charge it once since I received it.’ Stand-by battery life is just shy of a month and a half, which impressed me at least.

Anyway, I’ve given it a fair amount of use over these two months; downloaded a number of ‘books’, checked out the note-writing system and all that jazz. It’s a beautifully designed device and system, very intuitive. One qualm I have is the page-turning buttons on the sides. Both sides of the device are adorned with a large ‘>’ marked button beneath a smaller ‘<‘ marked one. At first I found myself hitting the right hand ‘>’ (or ‘next page’) button to turn, predictably, forward in the book and the left hand ‘>’ in an attempt to flip back a page, which led to some small confusion. It’s a small annoyance, and I adjusted quickly enough. In fact the dual-sided controls are proving to be a wonderful idea as I find myself doing other things while reading.

The screen is excellent. It’s virtually glare-free, so reading in bright sunlight isn’t the rage inducing shit-fest that a phone or tablet screen would tend to be (without accoutrements, anyway).
This is because of the ‘E-Ink’ system, which uses microcapsules of negatively-charged black pigment and positively-charged white pigment which can be arranged an re-arranged according to the whims of two electrode layers above and below.

Here’s a picture that I stole from Wikipedia of the microcapsules in question.

Research tells me a colour version has been available since 2010 that is capable of displaying 4096 colours alongside 16 shades of grey. That’s a real headfuck when you think about the science behind it.

Enough of the technical details, though, let’s talk about the experience:

Reading the Kindle is not unlike reading a ‘book’. Presumably that’s what the creators were going for. The display looks like paper for the most part, which gives you a little jolt when you spot a blinking cursor moving about on it because a part of your mind screams “BUT PAPER IS A STATIC OBJECT! GOD HELP US ALL!” for a split second.

The most striking thing I’ve noticed, though, is right up at the top in the title; I’m not reading any ‘books’ right now.

I of course mean that in the literal sense, I’m a voracious reader and tend to have at least three ‘books’ on the go simultaneously, which I do right now except all of them are virtual.

There was no change-over anxiety, there was no jarring sense of loss (or gain), there wasn’t even any recognition of the fact until just before I started writing this. I simply hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t using physical ‘books’ any more.
That’s not to say I won’t from now on; I love ‘books’. I love the way they feel, look, sound and smell. ‘Books’ appeal to me both aesthetically and in terms of their content, like I’m some sort of lovelorn fool besotted with some intelligent, beautiful, perfect woman.

All I’m saying is her, referring to physical ‘books’ as a singular feminine entity for the purposes of this metaphor (keep up), younger and sleeker sister, meaning virtual ‘books’ on an e-reader like the Kindle (Still with me?), is equally attractive. Or is that ‘are equally attractive’? I’ve ruined my own metaphor there.

It’s very helpful to a style of reader like myself who when travelling would normally pack a couple of oft chunky, frequently fairly weighty ‘books’ into a bag to the detriment of other, possibly more important, items. Like food, bug-spray or an anti-wild-animal knife. Having the ability to dip into roughly 1000 ‘books’ (according to the marketing spiel) on a device no larger than a couple of take-away menus stacked together is a life-saver. Not having to remember page numbers or find lost bookmarks is good too; when you close (leave? quit?) a ‘book’ on the Kindle it helpfully remembers exactly what page you were on, for every single ‘book’.

By the way, I’m putting ‘book’ in inverted commas because this whole experience has rocked the paradigm and now I’m unsure what to call either of these items. If a physical object with paper pages and printed ink is a ‘book’, then the virtual, ones-and-zeros, differentially-charged microcapsules type almost needs to be something else. The trouble with that is I find the term ‘e-book’ slightly demeaning. It’s the same content, compared side-by-side, and ‘e-book’ reminds me of some terribly formatted, childishly written guide to making bombs from bleach and tinfoil.
So basically they are both ‘books’ until I can adjust my brain into thinking of them both as just books.

Apropos of all this, here’s my view:

I felt strangely about e-readers when they first made an appearance on the market, because my love of physical ‘books’ set me at odds with the idea that one could transition without some gargantuan effort. I felt like switching would have a huge impact on a part of my life that I love dearly.

It has not.

If anything it has merely extended the ways in which I enjoy the written word, which is really all ‘books’ are for anyway, despite all my posturing and declarations of love for the objects themselves the content is what drives anyone’s love of reading.

So this isn’t the end of physical ‘books’ as far as I can see, not for some long time at least, but it isn’t a failed experimental attempt at sci-fi futurism either. It’s a system that works, and it works really bloody well.

It’s not a replacement, it’s an augmentation.

Plus, I just really like it.

I love ‘books’. Doesn’t matter how I read them.



So That’s That

So 2010 is almost over, the starting point of a new decade grinds slowly into the middle. What have we learned this year?
Nothing we didn’t know already, basically. Tories are evil, Lib Dems are spineless and Labour are practically useless.
We’ve learned that charges will be dug up out of nowhere so America can get somebody they think has wronged them ( Support Assange).
We’ve learned that some people fear science while others fear religion, with both sides willing to call for genecide.
We’ve also learned that protesting doesn’t work and neither does rioting. It’s impossible to change someone else’s mind for them.
We’ve learned that snow get’s boring very quickly and that here in England we still can’t deal with it.
On top of these things, we’ve learned that TV will continue to aim for the lowest common denominator and succeed in making stars out of preening idiot nobodies.
We’ve learned that the music industry is far from dead, but it is senile now.

Is it all bad? Looks that way, but when evil rushed from the box there was one thing left inside. Quivering in the corner right at the bottom, cold and naked, was hope.
We’ve learned that privately funded space flight is not just theoretically possible; it’s a viable option and probably the only way the layman will get off this rock. That’s exciting.
We’ve learned that a cure for HIV is closer than ever. So too, cancer.
We’ve learned that stem cells are essentially magic cures for almost any genetic defect, if only people would take the research seriously.
We’ve learned that at least some people care what happens to them and others.
We’ve learned that there are always voices from the dark telling us that we’re cared for and that we’ll be okay if we just hang in there.
We’ve learned that there are whole nations committed to making sure this planet doesn’t become a burned out, inhospitable Venus clone.
We’ve seen pictures of the Earth taken from the window of the ISS.
We’ve witnessed changing attitudes towards race and sexuality.
We’ve seen people seriously considering the medical and economic benefits of legalizing a substance that is only illegal in the first place because a man who hated Mexicans wanted to monopolize the paper industry.

We’ve seen great art created and people engaging with it.
We’ve seen kids becoming genuinely excited about reading books. Sure, shit books, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Personally I’ve learned something quite important. It’s the same as it ever was. We go around and around again and every time it gets a little bit better, we care a little bit more about people instead of things, everything gets a little bit easier.
We can have frank discussions about controversial subjects and we can research controversial topics with less incoherent, uneducated screaming.

So yes, 2010 is drawing ever closer to being an entry in history books. But despite how it may look right now, I think we’re going to be okay. If we just hang in there, we’ll be okay.



A View Of My Emotional Attachment to Robots

I’ve always thought robots were cool. They really are; most males aged about 10 and up think this. Some move on and stop caring, forgetting about what were essentially characters of stories that could well have been human. Others, like myself, maintain a viewpoint of robots as not just cool characters, but important elements in the technological evolution of humanity.
That’s why I love Asimov’s robot stories. Many of these involve robots as parables for the human condition. Emotional tales of machines that are sometimes more ‘human’ than their creators.

There’s one point stuck in my memory where I realised the emotional significance of robots:
A group of primary school children in Japan were introduced to Asimo, Honda’s advanced robot that’s capable of running, climbing stairs and so on.
After some brief introductions (Asimo bows and waves hell to the children) there were many questions.
What does Asimo do for fun? (Dances, apparently).
How much did he cost?
How fast can he run?
Then after a short pause a tentative hand is raised from the back of the group.
One small boy, who will grow into a genius in my opinion, asked a question that is beautiful in it’s simplicity and scope. A question that signifies an important turning point in this child’s life, whether he knows it or not.
The question, after seeing Asimo standing stock still awaiting commands, was thus:
“Is he sad?”
Isn’t that wonderful?
In response the spokesperson hastily replied ‘Oh, no, Asimo isn’t sad! Look!’
Then, to prove how happy he was, the people by the controls made Asimo dance.
It bares repeating.
They made him dance.

That’s heartbreaking. I can’t be the only person who thinks so. When I’m quite tired it brings me close to tears, if I’m honest.
This story is so touching. It’s so sad.
Some people will be confused, to those people I say sorry, I can’t explain myself. It just hits me right in the heart whenever I remember it.

J Bov.



Trying to Reconcile Holism and Reductionism Using Only A Chair…

Consider this:
If a robot can be shown a chair and told ‘this is a chair’, then be shown a totally different (chair like) object and identify it as a chair also, rather than, say, a stool, or differentiate between a stool and, for example, a side-table of similar size, it’s more than likely that there is no separate, definable ‘chair-ness’ inherant in the object.
Rather, it is a construction of building blocks that form a recognisable form, based on or bourne out of it’s function. A simply defined, easily recognisable piece of learned information; a chair has a base or legs, a platform for sitting and a vertical portion to rest your back against. A machine or robot could simply learn to look for these basic parts and match them to available data, remembering (to a degree) what a chair should be or have. A sort of educated inference if it hasn’t seen the specific object before.

This is, of course, unless the robot has access to a different form of ‘thinking’ than it was programmed with. Some combination of processors that gave rise to another kind of intelligence. The ghost in the machine, if you will. An indefinable quality that allows it to recognise the inherant ‘chair-ness’ of an object alongside is physical attributes as a chair. Even if we can’t recogninse or find this ability in the robots programming or build, perhaps simply because an intelligence with the same ability created the one in question it is just naturally endowed with it also; it’s programmed in unknowingly as part of the ability to recognise objects.

Perhaps the question isn’t of holistic (the whole is more than the sum of it’s parts) or reductionist (there is only the simply defined building blocks or parts that define an object and it’s function) viewpoints; it’s possible there is a third way to view this.
This leads to the more pertinent question, or rather suggestion:
An object, in this case a chair, does have or contain a definable ‘chair-ness’, but this attribute is not above and beyond the sum of it’s parts. The physical objects that make it up, it’s visible, testable components (legs, a seat, a backrest etc.) combined with it’s definite function (for sitting, resting etc.) give the object it’s undefinable attribute as a ‘chair’ (in whatever language you care to mention).
It is X type of object because it has Y and it is for Z, where X is a quality that can only really but determined by personal experience rather than explanation. One could explain the components and the function of the chair, but not communicate in any real way its ‘chair’ aspect.

This may be the very reason we have one name for it, rather than a sentence explaining its form and function. Obviously it’s partly for the sake of expendiency, but perhaps the need to consolidate its nature into one word also defines its aspect, or is a product thereof. We see it’s ‘chair-ness’ so we call it a chair. Not implying that chairs existed long before we had a name for them, just that the object has an attribute we can use one word to define. Of course it could well be that because we have one word for the object, this adds to its ‘chair-ness’, one more part of it to be added to the whole, the name somehow begets or at least contributes to the aspect of this object.

Obviously, this all depends on whether the fucking thing exists in the first place.



It’s happening, it’s finally happening!

Oi! You lot! Look at this.

All I can say is it’s about time; finally people are looking into the viability of brain-computer interfaces. Science be praised.

Of course so far you have to ram electrodes into your brain to achieve much of anything, which you’d know if you’d read the article, you slovenly luddites. But the technology exists and that’s a start.

I imagine you will have seen the Star Wars branded ‘Force Trainer’ toy; the harder you concentrate the higher the ping pong ball in the tube will levitate. This is achieved by a chunky, goofy looking headset that detects and amplifies certain electronic activity in the brain, namely the impulses that increase as you focus on one object.

Here’s an idea for anyone who can implement this:
Use this technology in conjunction with the new technology mentioned in the article I linked to, streamline the headgear so it bears more resemblance to a bluetooth headset (make it comfortable to wear), make it wireless and market it towards extensive users of the internet.
I’ll even beta test it for free. See how generous I am?

The use of this tech in videogames could be unequivically the best thing since the analogue stick was introduced. Fuck the Wii’s pointless, impotent motion controls (what is the point if you don’t get physical feedback?), throw this into PC gaming. Suddenly a player’s skill is determined by the speed at which he or she can think, as opposed to how fast they can click.
Deathmatch on Call of Duty will suddenly be dominated by the most intelligent participants, as opposed to twitchy thirteen-year-olds who call you a ‘fag’ and other such genuinely offensive terms (most of them racist) in their ridiculous, high-pitched idiot voices because you aren’t as hyped up on sugar and idiocy as they are.

Obviously, this will probably never happen (while I’m alive at least, unless I’m a robot by then) and I’m painting an idealised view, or rather a self-aggrandising, ego-boosted, superiority complex flavoured fictional world.
Still it’s really very exciting that this type of thinking can occur without being called insane or a Future Wizard.

I just love that technology is getting ever closer to understanding how the finer controls of the human brain work and how to harness them to greater advantages than coming up with odd, wonderful and sometimes masturbatory fantasies (though far be it from me to decry their ability to do that) and it’s often just the pick me up I need; to know or find out that other people think this sort of thing is as important as I do.

Speaking of the important advances we’ve made as a species…
(Can I end a blog with a cliffhanger? Is that acceptable? Wait, I don’t care, I can do what I want. I’m…)
J.D. Bov