Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tales of Space and Time

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." - Niels Bohr

H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Things to Come, and a number of other imaginative novels, also left us a body of shorter works. Some of these are available in a collection called Tales of Space and Time which you can download from Feedbooks.

The first piece in this collection, "The Crystal Egg," was dramatized in a 2001 British TV series titled, "The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells" (available from Netflix). It begins in that staple of English fiction, the old curiosity shop, where the proprietor experiments with the peculiar visionary properties of an item on his shelves. Wells' original version is a good yarn, but I confess I like the twist given to it by the TV writers. (In making a series of it, they cast H.G. himself as the protagonist investigating such things as time travel and mysterious teleportations.)

In "The Star," Wells abandons any pretense of telling a story and simply gives us a compelling account of what it might be like for our solar system to suffer a near encounter with a large, bright, hot, and gravitationally powerful interloper. The material could have been delivered as an essay, but by presenting it as a historical account by an omniscient observer, and by weaving in many glimpses from the point of view of common people, the vision becomes much more powerful.

Wells next visits the distant past and the not so distant future. His tale of the primitive man who invented the first ax foreshadows later works such as The Clan of the Cave Bear and William Golding's The Inheritors, while also harking back to Kipling's The Jungle Book with its talking animals. Even though the science behind it is no longer up to date, Wells' vision of it still rings true, as if he was able to imagine his way back to those earlier times. Oh -- and of course the inventor of the ax lived in primordial England.

The future seems to have caused Wells more trouble, for even though he only ventured ahead by 200 years many of his ideas are still hopelessly antiquated. Single young women, for example, still have chaperons, and hypnotism is the state of the art in mental health care. Women still wear fancy hats attached with hat-pins, and marketers are selling "digestive pills." His vaguely depicted flying machines have huge "sails" on them, with people hanging below in "swinging seats." (And you thought you were afraid to fly in a plane!) He accurately extrapolated the movement of the population into the big cities, but failed to see that the same mobility could result in the sprawl of suburbia.

Despite all this, Wells gets one thing right in an uncanny way. His hero and heroine are star-crossed lovers from different classes (and don't tell me that's an anacronism) who develop an antipathy for the status quo that is eerily reminiscent of the counterculture of the 1960's. They leave the city to try living in an abandoned town in the country (back to the land!), and when that doesn't work out they end up doing manual labor in the underbelly of society where everyone wears "blue canvas" clothing (jeans?). They even have their own ideas about child rearing that sets them at odds with the system of public "creches" where the infants of the future are raised. This foreshadows the darker vision of Huxley's Brave New World, in which the hero also left society to try living in the wilds of South America where it was still possible to be free.

As I've mentioned before (here and here), those who would foretell the future are taking a big risk, and science fiction writers are among the most daring of the lot. As Paul Valery said, "... the future is not what it used to be." Things are changing so rapidly that yesterday's future resembles yesterday more than today, and much more than tomorrow. Just consider some past images of the future on display at Paleofuture.com ("a look into the future that never was").

But we have to give the venerable Wells his due. Like Jule Verne, Jonathan Swift, and others who went before, by boldly imagining what had never been imagined he helped to create the space of possibility in which the future, come what may, is still unfolding.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Long Live Big Brother!

1984 becomes the first unbook, but probably won't be the last ...

What a coincidence -- no sooner was the digital ink dry on my recent blog about the 25th anniversary of 1984 than Orwell's notorious novel made news again by disappearing from Amazon's Kindle readers everywhere. This must mean it's time to reflect once more about the issue of copyright and rights management in the digital era.

Apparently Amazon was notified by the legitimate copyright owners that their digital editions of 1984 and also Animal Farm had been obtained from an illegitimate third party source, so they were obliged to stop distributing them. What makes the story bizarre, and should put consumers on alert, is that Amazon went way beyond what was required of them and decided to use their "Whispernet" back door into all Kindles everywhere to recall (i.e., delete) all the copies that had been downloaded previously.

Customers received refunds, but were not even told that their books were now vanished as if they had never been. They had become "unbooks."

Now, as everyone should remember, Winston Smith, the diligent worker bee of Orwell's imaginary world, toiled away at his desk in the Ministry of Truth carefully excising past references to news that had been revised and people who had been done away with: "unpersons." He did this by pasting brown paper over their pictures in old newspapers, and by redacting the text until it resembled a passage of testimony on the Iran-Contra affair. The operative government slogan was: Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.

But just when we thought we were safe because things have worked out differently, along comes this new digital technique capable of instantly removing all references to any digital content. The battle is not lost yet, because regardless of Amazon's deletions there are still lots of hard copies of Orwell out in the world, and perhaps some legitimate digital copies as well -- maybe even a fugitive one living on a Kindle somewhere, saved only because it is in some remote area of the planet where Whispernet cannot reach. But the example shows what is possible and should give us cause for concern.

With the immanent demise of the print editions of all newspapers, we will soon get used to the idea that our sole source for information is the digital archives of the Internet. And alas, the memory of online sources is brief and subject to loss and revision. Under a regime with the will to do so (let's pick China as an example), the nerve-nexuses of the Internet can be constricted, spying software can be installed on your computer by law, and what you can and cannot access can become very much a matter of centralized control.

And never mind deleting books or articles -- how about just revising them, perhaps while they are still being read? Remember that election last year where our editor lambasted the other party's candidate? Well, as you can see, you are mistaken, because he was clearly backing the winner from the start. Remember the famous photo of the young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Well, your memory must be playing tricks on you, because you can search all day and you will never again find a copy of that photo.

Our defense against this potential tyranny is still vigilance, as always. The battle of information flow between the top-down central authority model and the bottom-up grass roots model gives hope that there is at least an alternative. But we also need to start choosing our battles while we can still win them. Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is still a winnable debate.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has stripped us of some basic rights that we used to take for granted when we bought a book or record. We need to make up our minds to resist. We can do it economically, by boycotting publishers and distributors who engage in practices we don't approve of, or politically, by demanding legislative change, or in courts, where organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are standing up on our behalf. (Check out their take on this issue here.)

One commentator on the irony of this fate befalling 1984 observed that it might have been even more ironic if it had happened to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, about a society that had burned all its books. But there is probably small chance of that happening as long as the publishers need to have something to sell us. Rights management is really about having a way to sell us the same thing multiple times, the way we are expected to pay every time we watch a movie.

I'm much more concerned about the possibility that the next time I read it there will be something funny about the ending of 1984. Winston Smith, bright and shiny after graduating from the rehab program in the basement of The Ministry of Love, joins the Anti-Sex league with his pal Julia. They move into a plush new apartment suitable for Inner Party members and live happily ever after. Winston can't imagine what ever got into him to question things the way he did. But that's all in the past now, where it can be safely ... revised.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Death of a Pioneer

Gosh, Grandpa -- what was it like before the Internet?

Way back at the dawn of time, around 1982, I stared at a dark screen with some green text on it and listened to the squawking of the first modem I ever used as it dialed up a connection to a distant host.

I had attached this beast with a fat 25-pin cable, installed a terminal program that came on a 5-inch floppy disk, and followed the instructions for configuring my serial port using settings like "COM1" and "8,N,E," which meant 8 data bits, No stop bit, Even parity. Without this, PC-DOS would have been unable to get the modem to do anything, or the terminal program would have spewed gibberish across my screen.

Breathless seconds passed. Then I was greeted by a "CONNECTED" message and a prompt for my user name and password. I was in! But what was I into, you may ask. Not the Internet, which, under the name of ARPANET, was still in its infancy and had not been allowed out of the nursery of the DOD and a collection of universities and defense contractors. And not the World Wide Web*, which had not been invented yet. No, it was none other than Compuserve, that grand-daddy of online life. And if you want to click that link you'd better do it soon, because this pioneer of cyberspace is about to become history, the victim of the same fast-paced rat-race of innovation that it helped to bring into being.

About all I ever did with Compuserve was to read the news, and that was mostly for the novelty of it. At a speed of 300 baud I could actually read the text faster than it scrolled onto my screen. In modern parlance, by the time I had downloaded it I was already through with it and on to the next story. Sure, it was clunky, but the idea that I could get the news as fast as the Associated Press could send it out was a real novelty and clearly a sign of things to come. This was still the era of the daily newspaper and the weekly news magazine, which we now see are becoming obsolete because they can never report anything but old news, which by definition is not "new."

Compuserve offered email if I wanted it, but I didn't know anyone else who had an email account so I never sent any. And why would anyone want to correspond with someone they didn't know? I had heard about "bulletin board" services but could not see the purpose of one. That was a light bulb that took some time to turn on.

I didn't use Compuserve very often or for very long. At the rate of $6 per hour it didn't take much to rack up a substantial bill. If you wanted higher speed you could pay for the premium 1200 baud service -- 4 times faster. But that cost $12 per hour and required a modem that cost hundreds of dollars extra, so for most of us it was not a realistic option. Later modem speeds increased rapidly from 1200 baud to 2400 ... 4800 ... 9600 ... 14k ... 28k ... finally maxing out at 56k just before DSL technology made them obsolete. (Apologies to those who still rely on them out of choice or lack thereof.)

And of course the rest is history. Within 10 years Sir Tim Berners-Lee had come up with the paradigm of hypertext and server addressing that made web pages and the World Wide Web a reality. I can still remember reviews of some early web sites that complimented them on their use of images to present a nice appearance. Wouldn't Web 2.0 with full video and sound have blown our minds back then? Another 10 years was long enough for the whole dot-com boom and bust to happen. Whoosh.

Lost in the shuffle was poor old Compuserve. Bought out by AOL--which became part of Time-Warner and itself struggles to survive in the face of losing its dialup access revenue--Compuserve ended up in a dwindling niche as just another web portal looking for customers. And now AOL has decided to pull the plug on it.

But like every good ending, it is really only the end of the beginning.

* Note: Though they are now used synonymously, the Internet and the World Wide Web (all those www's) are actually different things. The Internet is the infrastructure that allows servers, client computers, and networks to interconnect around the world, while the WWW is the system of domain names, hypertext documents (web pages) and email that flows across it. We could (and did) have an Internet without the Web as we know it, but the Web could not exist without something to run on.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Musical Roots

Unearthing the song hits of the Ice Age ...

One of my all time favorite Star Trek episodes from the Next Generation period is the one in which they encounter an alien space probe that temporarily kidnaps the mind of Captain Picard. In the course of 24 hours he finds himself living an entire lifetime as a member of the alien species that created the probe as its legacy. Their sun is swelling, their planet drying out and burning up, becoming an uninhabitable desert. It is all they can do to create the technology to launch a first probe into space, signalling that they existed. As one of the aliens, Picard marries, raises a family, and lives out his natural life as their world grows steadily hotter and more dead. He even finds time to learn a musical instrument--a small flute like a penny whistle--and to play a favorite tune on it.

Awakening back on the Enterprise, Picard learns that the lifetime he experienced was the message that the doomed alien race had packed into its probe -- the essence of one life out of its billions, designed to be planted in the first receptive mind that came along, a way of saying "this is what our lives were like" long after those lives had ended.

Also packed into the probe was a small flute which Picard puts to his lips, and from which a familiar poignant tune emerges as the Enterprise sails off into the depths of space. Its frail notes are all that remains of the vanished world.

Back in reality, we learn that our own world's oldest musical instruments have been pieced together from bits of ivory and bone found in a cave in Germany. As the legacy of our vanished ancestors, this certainly compares to Picard's discovery.

Dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, these flutes, or at least replicas of them, can actually be played, emitting into the modern air tones that have not been heard since humans hunted mammoths in a glaciated Europe. Fascinatingly, they approximate the same pentatonic scale still used tens of thousands of years later in the Orient, and which can be played using only two fingers of each hand.

What melodies they played and how they were used remains a mystery. We can only speculate that the music may have resembled that of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia, or the Americas, and that singing and dancing may have been done to it. How wonderful it is to see those instinctual activities still alive and thriving in human societies today, and to realize how fundamental they are to our humanity.

The discovery shows that music goes back at least as far as language, and may even have preceded it. A recent PBS documentary titled "The Music Instinct" mentions the idea that Neanderthals (who preceded the flute-making modern humans) may have sung to communicate, even though they never developed a true language. I imagine this being comparable to the way we modulate our grunts to say "uh-huh" (yes) or "uh-uh" (no) -- or even "uh-oh" (whoops) or "mm-MM-mm" (I don't know).

Taking this a bit further, some naturalists look at the "musical" activities of creatures like whales and birds to show that the modulation of sound has a history that likely goes back for many millions of years. Used to attract mates, to warn of danger, or just to stay in touch with other members of a flock or family group, the making of sounds has long held a big survival value, which is how such capabilities evolve.

And when it comes to dance, you have probably already seen the video of the dancing cockatoo that has been making the rounds online and on TV. (If not, just look for it on YouTube. I'm not going to post the one millionth link to the thing.) This bird, like others who have been similarly tested, clearly enjoys bobbing and stepping to a rhythmic beat -- even if it has been created by a different species (us) using technical apparatus.

Which brings us to music as technology...

If language made us human, it also enabled us to improve our tool making ability, and ultimately led to the highly sophisticated machinery of modern life. Among those tools were our earliest musical instruments. And just as language existed for a long time before being written, music existed as a purely oral tradition until relatively recent times. The music of India, for example, is still taught that way even though it is highly evolved, with a rich history that spans many centuries.

It is uncertain how far back musical notation goes, but it appears to be more recent than the written word. Some of the earliest examples appear as markings above the words of a song, much as contemporary guitar chords are sometimes shown between the lines of folk music. (See the photo of a Delphic hymn carved in stone from Greece.) Experts have managed to decipher the notes and durations and to reproduce a few poignant scraps of ancient melody -- all that remains of the musical legacy of vanished civilizations.

Our modern notation evolved along with our scales, tonal system, and theories of harmony. It would be hard to see how things could have developed this far without the ability to write it down and pass it along. Just try to imagine getting an orchestra to play Beethoven with words alone.

But our musical technology has gone far beyond that, leading to the creation of new instruments, and to the recording and reproduction of the sounds we make. Now musicians can learn from not only the written notes left behind by those who have gone before, but by listening to all the nuances of their performances. It amounts to a new kind of oral -- or aural -- tradition laid on top of the traditions of the past.

So how far back does our musical heritage go? According to Brian Green, author of The Elegant Universe, if the String Theory of physics is correct, then the most basic particles that compose the universe can all be thought of as vibrating in a cosmic harmony. Perhaps "in the beginning was the Word," but right after that was Music.

For more info: