Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Review - FlashForward

FlashForward premiered last night. The show falls into the ‘FBI unit that investigates strange events with global implications’ genre. Very much like The X-Files or Fringe or Warehouse 13. The show’s premise is that everyone in the world passes out for two minutes, seventeen seconds during which time disaster ensues in the real world and everyone experiences flashes of their lives six months hence.

There follows a series of nitpicks:-

  • Half the world’s population would be asleep and therefore would have nothing worse than bad dreams. Claims of global catastrophe are exaggerated.
  • It seems that every driver was going fast enough to set their engine on fire, flip their car spectacularly, jack-knife their trucks, or get involved in massive collisions.
  • Immediately following the flash, fire seemed to be billowing from every office building. Why? Were hundreds of people lighting candles when they passed out? Did some people spontaneously combust? Were lots of people standing directly over stoves?
  • Setting up a website to log people’s visions is a profoundly bad idea. It would be a wiki filled with people claiming to become the President, win the lottery, or performing certain other actions.
  • The Los Angeles Branch of the FBI is the most qualified to investigate this because...?
  • Seth McFarlane’s voice is distracting. It’s like having Brian the dog sitting in on an FBI meeting.
  • It was generally one of those shows packed with clichés: troubled but machismo-filled FBI agents struggling to unearth a conspiracy while putting their own lives in order; people saying “My God!” in a throaty voice; the protagonist and his/her significant other being deliriously happy at the start of the season; the dialogue being crisp, clean, and uninterrupted; characters climbing on top of cars to get a slightly better view; people not turning on lights because important conversations must be had in shrouds of shadow; the main character as a Caucasian male and his FBI partner as of an ethnic minority. One of those shows.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

"First Week Thoughts."

I started my Masters a few days ago and I’m finding it hard to accept my new position as a postgraduate. Only a few months ago postgraduates were above me in the academic hierarchy: as an undergraduate I mostly knew PhDs but even the Masters students I met were intelligent and cool twenty-somethings. How can I possibly be one of those people?

Being a postgraduate is different to being an undergraduate. As an undergraduate my classmates and I felt like cattle being shoved through the university’s byzantine system and paying for the privilege: we gave the university money, they gave us perfunctory levels of education and lecturers who treated us like a chore (not all lecturers), and then we were pushed out of the system with degrees. As a postgraduate I’ve been treated more like a human being eager to learn and better himself: I’ve been talked to, offered support, and asked to contribute to the department community. However there are a number of variables involved here so this isn’t a firm hypothesis: I’m at a different university doing a different course with a different faculty.

The treatment of undergraduates is largely due to the modern university structure. Universities are no longer viewed as elite centres of learning like Plato’s Academy – university is a default destination on the road that people are dragged along after college. Far too many people go to university. This is because of the Labour government’s bizarre insistence that 50% of school-leavers attend. With thousands of undergraduates buzzing around hallowed halls, tutors can’t make a connection with their students and don’t really respect them since the standards for university entry are so low. To deal with swelling numbers of students, universities have adopted a cold and clinical reliance on computers and integrated learning systems like WebCT/Blackboard for enrolment, registration, teaching material, and assessment. As more people gain Bachelor’s degrees, the degrees themselves become worth less and less.

Clearly I am developing a postgraduate resentment towards undergraduates – with their parties, their affected wackiness, their noisy Fresher’s Week festivities, and their leaflets that they hand out to everyone who walks past their damn Student’s Union. Apparently universities do lead to intellectual elitism.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

"Google Life."

Amazon gets in trouble for deleting the public’s ebooks, Microsoft is infamous for rushed development cycles and buggy software, but somehow Google remains the golden-boy of information technology companies. For many of us, Google is the first page we see when we open our browsers, Google provides the search results we rely on, and Google is the first port of call for our information requests. For information aficionados like myself, Google’s self-proclaimed mission to “organize (sic) the world’s information...” is a noble aim with a fine historic tradition from the Library at Alexandria through Paul Otlet’s Universal Book to the beginnings of World Wide Web technology. How does such a large corporation garner such public loyalty and trust?

Part of this public perception is due to the role that Google plays and its ability to change that role as time has gone by. In the early days of the internet when web browsers opened up a new frontier and the public was eager to explore a digital landscape, Google acted as a reliable tool with which to search this fresh environment. Its unique algorithms and PageRank technology provided better results than AltaVista, Yahoo, and Excite, and so Google offered more help to a population lost and bewildered in a forest of HTML. Google’s role was that of the shop assistant who helps us find the exact item we want.

Over the years Google’s role developed as internet users matured. Google Zeitgeist’s reports show what terms the public searched for every year. 2001-2004 shows that the majority of searches were queries for information – ‘anthrax’, ‘osama bin laden’, ‘harry potter’, ‘iraq’, ’50 cent’, etc. These are searches with no fixed destination in mind. In 2005 a shift occurs. The top-gaining searches are for websites that the searcher already knows exist: ‘Myspace’, ‘wikipedia’, ‘Sky News’, iTunes’. Google’s role changes from searcher to navigator, helping an educated internet-using populous to find their way across the internet without bothering with the peculiar syntax of URLs. In 2009, a lot of us use Google without even thinking about it, letting it direct us to our favourite sites as a reflex. Google has always been reliable and its layout has not changed since it was launched. Reliability, consistency, and familiarity: the foundations of trust.

Another major factor is the company’s presentation of itself as an innocent and whimsical corporate entity. The logo is simple and colourful. The name is fun to say – in the early days people thought it referred to a children’s clothing company. Among professionals, Google is known as one of the greatest places to work, encouraging a free-wheeling, university-campus atmosphere with free time given to employees for ‘Innovation’. Among the public, the company’s April Fool’s Day pranks are well-known (which sort of defeats the purpose of a prank).

Central to the company and the public perception of it are Google’s business ethics summed up by their unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” Google actively avoids the pitfalls of large companies by avoiding shady dealings and keeping their users at the centre of their business. When Google acquired companies like YouTube and Blogger, it kept their services largely unchanged. Despite its growth, Google is still devoted to its central mission of facilitating search. It has been uncorrupted by the advertising it offers through AdWords and AdSense. Though it makes its money from advertising, the main site’s core search technically makes no profit: unless you click on a sponsored link, Google makes nothing from a search. As James Grimmelmann has said, “Google’s business model has always been to provide information for free, and sell advertising on the basis of the traffic this generates.”

For any other company, an article like this would be a cause for distrust. On the face of it, it sounds extraordinarily sinister: company employees sneaking into libraries around the world and scanning books into a massive central database using an unknown method. It sounds like the premise of a Dan Brown novel. But our familiarity with Google leads us to picture not shadowy G-men but a kindly uncle preparing a special surprise for us all. When Google says its only aim is to facilitate the search for information and the preservation of out-of-print books, I believe them. You’ll understand how unusual it is for me to trust any corporation.

Over the coming years, Google will play a major role in information management. They are at the forefront of the digital preservation movement and their search protocol has redefined how we search for information. Their business ethics offer a glowing example in this recession caused by greed and shady business. They have a level of public trust matched only by Apple and Valve. Even if their ultimate aim is world domination and establishment of a New World Order, I can’t think of any other company I’d be happier to slave under.

For more information on Google and the nature of information searching I highly recommend John Battelle’s book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, particularly Chapters 7 and 8 on Google’s ethics and public trust.

Monday, 14 September 2009

"The Beginning of a Life."

A companion piece to “The End of Philosophy.”

Once all questions of life, the universe, and everything have been resolved, one question remains: what now?

A few months ago I graduated from university with a First Class BA (Hons) Degree in Philosophy. After 22 years of government hand-holding and guidance, I was shoved blinking and confused into the sunlight of the real world only to discover that bankers, politicians, and economists had destroyed the job market. Graduates across the country left the safety of academic environments and found themselves being told to get a job by the people who had made it difficult to do so.

Years of philosophy have left my mind organised and efficient, well-equipped to deal with the confusions of the universe. I was faced with the question of what to do with this mind and its 60 plus remaining years on the planet. I had none of the usual generic ambitions: I have no desire to reproduce since the world is over-populated already; the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake seems futile and wasteful. My only dream was to have my short fiction published – a dream which I am currently pursuing but which doesn’t seem substantial enough to build a life upon.

In July I had a moment of clarity. I was invited to interview for a Graduate Traineeship at a university library, a post I had applied for during one of my frequent third-year-panic-about-the-future attacks. Although I didn’t get the job, the interview showed me a place where I actually wanted to work: I’d always seen work as a necessary evil, something I had to do to get the money to buy the essentials – food, shelter, clothes, books, and internet. This was somewhere I wanted to be, somewhere full of interesting, intelligent people, somewhere perfect. I came home and looked around – I saw my bookshelves organised by genre and author, I saw my MP3 folder organised by artist and album, I saw my DVDs organised by genre, I saw my enjoyable part-time job as a Casual Public Library Assistant.

I saw me. I saw that I wanted to be a librarian.

As part of my degree I studied symbolic logic: propositional and predicate logic, modal logic, the Boolean logical operators, Russell and Whitehead’s Principia notation, Brouwer’s intuitionistic logic, etc. Logic is perfect. A completed logical proof feels perfect: an immutable truth in a world of grey uncertainty. Part of me loves that sense of perfection – the sense that logic is right and pure and unchanging. Part of me recognised it as a delusion. Logical notation is symbols on paper: reason tells us that the semantic content of logical symbols cannot be in the inert symbols themselves or in some Platonic heaven. Metaphysically, I am a nominalist – I do not believe that logic and mathematics are objective. I believe that logic is a human construction. The reason it feels so perfect is that our brains have evolved to see it as perfect. Logic is a wonderful abstraction that fools us into thinking that there is genuine perfection in the world.

Organisation of physical objects is a way of reaching towards that sense of perfection. Cataloguing objects and information brings the world a little closer to the perfect realm that can be glimpsed through mathematics and logic. Libraries keep information in order and then facilitate the access of it. They aim at bringing organisation and hence logic to the vast corpus of human knowledge. Libraries connect us with something bigger than ourselves: the ideal of completeness that has been pursued since Alexandria.

Since July I have applied for a number of starting positions in academic libraries. I have continued my casual work in public libraries. I was given a late place on a Masters course in Library and Information Management that I will be starting next week unless I find a library job before then.

The biggest struggle of life is deciding what to do with it. I have decided to organise human information and spend my spare time writing and reading. I have decided to pursue the only two dreams I have: getting a job where I can feel the perfection of logic – in a large library somewhere – and getting my writing published.

Will it be a good life? A fulfilled life? Eudaimonia or undaimonia?

Only one way to find out...

Thursday, 10 September 2009

"The best things in life are short."

“Why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?” – Jorge Luis Borges.

There’s a lot to be said in defence of shortness in creative works. Short fiction of any medium – literature, cinema, video games – is good at expressing ideas: offering perfect little jewels that manage to capture a thought in a small number of words, film, or data.

Long works can be excellent. Long pieces of fiction give the reader the opportunity to experience a different world, explore the depths of various characters, and immerse oneself in the work’s theme. The Lord of the Rings, the complete Harry Potter, Gaiman’s The Sandman, Neal Stephenson’s novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, RPG or MMORPG video games, film trilogies: they offer the reader/viewer somewhere to escape to. Long novels often come complete with a fully-realised world replete with appendices, glossaries, atlases, and histories. Extended film series get filled with canonical extras, important secondary and tertiary characters, and in-depth systems of how that world operates. Long works offer experience.

Short works on the other hand offer ideas. Short fiction gives a central idea without burying it under mountains of character development, unnecessary exposition, or excessive world-building. They offer a thought for the audience to consider, often made all the more potent for being expressible in brief.

“What can be said at all can be said clearly” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities stands out as a showcase of skill in short writing. The novel consists of chapters about a page long, each one giving a meditation on an imaginary city which possesses a unique feature. The novel works because of Calvino’s ability to evoke a pristine image in a small number of words. Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction is another example of short but near perfect works. The beauty of Borges is that each story can be summarised in a simple sentence or phrase: ‘the infinite library’, ‘the man who never forgets’, ‘the world based on idealism’. The stories work because the basic idea is never overburdened by excess: the reader is invited to meditate on the premise and draw out the conclusions of it by themselves. The same applies to short novels such as Einstein's Dreams, The Third Policeman, Fahrenheit 451, and Candide.

Masterpieces of philosophical writing are often short. Wittgenstein’s first opus, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is an amazing achievement precisely because of its brevity. Describing the logical foundations of the actual world and all possible worlds is astounding but the fact that Wittgenstein does it in only 80 pages magnifies the accomplishment. In existentialist literature there are short classics such as Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Camus’ The Plague, and Sartre’s short lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. The impact of Existentialism is a Humanism comes from its lack of heavy metaphysics and phenomenology. The lecture is really a précis of Sartre’s massive Being and Nothingness – it gives the moral and theological implications of existentialism in terms suitable for an amateur or a layman. It offers a window into existentialism’s alternative view of the world without being shrouded in technicalities and jargon.

The most striking video games of the past few years have been those that sought to express an idea without excessive elaboration. Braid and Portal are short, satisfying puzzle games which exercise the brain rather than the reflexes. The creators recognised that 10+ hours of gameplay would be superfluous and so included no unnecessary filler thus creating a fulfilling game experience.

Finally there are short films which possess a charm of their own. io9 has an article up listing short films which could be extended into feature length movies. But do they really need extending? They put forward an idea succinctly and do not wear out their welcome. Isn’t that to be admired?

Short works are about ideas. They offer up a single thought and ask the audience to do the leg-work themselves. Short works don’t patronise – they encourage us to think and use our intelligence to draw our own conclusions. Long works give experiences; short works give ideas.

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. 'But which is the stone that supports the bridge?' Kublai Khan asks. 'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.' Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: 'Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.' Polo answers: 'Without stones there is no arch.' – Italo Calvino.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

"The Road to Shepherd's Bush."

Last week James Murdoch claimed that the BBC practiced “state-sponsored journalism” and implied that the BBC could never be as independent as corporate news networks such as those owned by News Corporation. Giving the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh, Murdoch said that “In this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy.” He argued that the BBC’s hold over the British news was evocative of Orwell’s dystopian vision of Britain in 1984.

At the centre of Murdoch’s accusation is the notion that BBC News is compromised by its Government mandate and its financial backing. Although the BBC is quasi-autonomous and is actually a public corporation, its critics argue that the presence of any state control means that it cannot provide impartial journalism. The central claim is that the state-sponsored background of the BBC compromises its journalism more than the compromise suffered by News Corporation’s outlets ie. their basis in commercialism and the necessity of generating profit.

One way of judging which news source is the most compromised is by taking a cursory glance at their websites.

The BBC News website (above) offers a number of news stories, none of which stand out as particularly partisan. It contains no explicit mention of either right or left-wing politics. The website design is minimalistic and functional giving the news in a straight-forward, if rather plain, manner.

The Fox News website (above)has a third of its horizontal space taken up by advertisements. It contains mention of right-wing politics and uses evocative language to disparage its competition – the “out of touch media”. Its logo markets itself as “Fair & Balanced”.

It would therefore appear that the corporate-owned news organ is making a greater concession to its advertising paymasters than the state-owned news organ is making to its government overlords. But this is a tu quoque argument on my part and Mr. Murdoch deserves better than that.

The Murdoch/BBC debate comes down to a matter of trust: do you trust the state or corporations? Corporations have a tendency to be single-minded in their pursuit of profit. The bottom line for corporate entities is money. This occasionally leads corporations to abuse their economic power and treat human beings with disdain. News Corporation’s own subsidiary, News International, for example was recently in trouble for using illegal phone-taps to spy on the public. It’s worth nothing that this practice is perhaps slightly more ‘Orwellian’ than anything the BBC has ever done.

This is not to say that the BBC hasn’t had its share of trouble. BBC News was heavily involved in the Hutton inquiry and sometime ago a trailer for a BBC documentary was deliberately edited to make the Queen look bad. But if anything this points towards a lack of compromise on behalf of the BBC: the ‘state-sponsored’ company was in trouble for insulting the British head of state.

State control is far from perfect but in my opinion it can be trusted more than any corporate controlled entity. For the most part the state has the advantage of being run by elected officials who the public have some measure of control over. Murdoch mistakenly invoked the buzz-word of modern politics – “democracy” –without realising that state-sponsored entities are at least quasi-democratic whereas corporate entities are absolutely not. Nobody ever elected Rupert Murdoch.

The British are proud of their state-sponsored entities: recently the NHS came under attack by US Republicans which prompted thousands of Brits to send Tweets soaring across the pond in impassioned defence; the Guardian reports that the public is by and large happy with the BBC. We like our uniqueness of our institutions.

The BBC produces programming that simply wouldn’t get made without it: Radio 4, Radio 3, and Radio 2; intelligent quiz shows that don’t pander to the audience; important political coverage from Question Time to Newsnight; cultural shows and events that the other terrestrial channels shy away from. It also provides some of the best news programming in the world, free from commercial influence or excessive political bias. BBC News may not fit into the world-view of people like James Murdoch – the world as one giant free-market under the hoof of powerful economic entities – but that is precisely why the BBC is so beloved by so many people. It dares to be different in a world of increasing homogeneity.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Review - Walden or Life In The Woods

There is a sub-genre of autobiographical non-fiction that can be referred to as ‘quest fiction’ wherein a person pledges to undertake a unique adventure, live in a different way, or follow a simple idea to absurd conclusions. Dave Gorman, Danny Wallace, and Morgan Spurlock have built their careers on ‘quests’. Such experiments are entertaining in the short term but over in the long term tend to be disappointing for one reason: everyone breaks the rules.

Walden can be considered an early quest book. In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau pledged to spend two years in a secluded cabin by Walden Pond. The book presents an exercise in isolation, non-conformity, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Thoreau built his own cabin, grew his own crops, hunted his own food, and lived a life that left leisure time for his scholarly pursuits.

The idea of ‘returning to nature’ holds a fascination for people trapped by modern society: the countryside is being invaded by urban townies who want a nice view from their bedroom window and through their willingness to throw money around have driven up property prices in the countryside by an insane degree forcing people who actually work in rural environments to suffer poverty. Not long ago I wrote a post - inspired by the tranquillity of a rural setting - about slowing down our busy lives. Thoreau expresses this point wonderfully:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Though the book works as a treatise on nature and the joys of an eccentric life, it fails on one of its central themes. Thoreau presents himself as fully self-sufficient: he discovered his own patch of land and used good old-fashioned hard work to dig his own cellar and erect his own house. The dream of self-sufficiency is of major appeal to the reader who is left wondering why we can’t all build our own houses and live like Richard Briers in The Good Life. The book is appealing because we imagine that we could do what Thoreau did: escape modern society and live for ourselves.

But a quick glance at the most cursory of sources reveals that Thoreau was not the self-sustained rebel he appears as. Thoreau gives the impression that he broke society’s rules to squat on a piece of a land and live out the rural idyll. In fact, the land that Thoreau built on was owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow American Transcendentalist. The reader wants to believe that self-sufficiency is possible for anyone and so on learning about the real background of the experiment, the book becomes less relatable: we don’t have rich friends who allow us to conduct social experiments on their land, we don’t have a Harvard education and disposable income, we haven’t been taught the intricacies of farming and hunting. Thoreau breaks his self-imposed rules and the reader feels cheated. Richard Zacks wrote: Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle.

Thus the book loses its power and its appeal. It’s an interesting read with some inspirational insights applicable even a hundred and fifty years later but its simplicity and homeliness comes at a cost of naivety. It stretches credulity to believe that the whole experiment was one long success: Thoreau never complains of a bad day, the cold, the hunger, or any failure on his part. The penultimate chapter, Spring, reaches a zenith of sickly sweet optimism and I pictured Thoreau singing 'Zip-a-dee-doo-dah' while waltzing through a Bambi-esque forest. Walden comes across as unreal and while it is entertaining and profound in the short term, it is disappointing in the long term because Thoreau broke his own rules.

Walden is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg or can be read on Wikisource.