Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Physics from a ditch

We’re on an oil rig, symbol of the old paradigm, now helping in the new. Over the North Sea there is mist, long muscles of waves pass by 20 metres below us, visible through the grille. Sea spray is on the wind and the machine stands ready, a hulking immovable mass. A few other scientists and engineers are present, a few reporters, families, my wife and son. I say a few words, others too, and then somewhere far up beyond the sky a horizon opens up without fuss and the 2-tonne machine drifts lazily up towards it, as if it was a helium balloon. They cheer.. The smell of, is it ozone? Seaweed? No. Soil? Mud?..

I come to. I’m in a ditch, in the park, in the mud. Soaking wet and shivering. I’m not sure how I came to be here except I feel that the Earth is spinning and not just from the movement of the stars.

I say to myself, ‘If only Galileo could have had a beer, or ten, with the inquisition they might have believed that the Earth moves..’

I look up at the few stars visible through the clouds and wonder drunkenly if mankind will ever overcome its own self-destructiveness and get there. Someone is standing over me

‘Dad? Are you alright?’

‘Oh, fine…!’ I say, peering through a muddy covering. My son is standing there under an umbrella

‘Alright, no. I’ve lost my job and now Mum's thrown me out!’

‘She says to come back now, but why are you in a ditch, Dad?’

‘The best things grow from the mud..’ I say cryptically.

He helps me out and we sit on a park bench under the umbrella. I’m shivering but unwilling to go back to the house to face ‘practicality over big picture’ Mum.

‘Dad. Why did you get fired?’

I tell him the truth, as I always try to do

‘I published a paper proposing something that most people think is impossible. Lots of people told me off, and demanded that I resign.’

‘Is it your inertia machine again?’


‘It seems cool to me.’

Yeah, I don’t see why I have to end up in a ditch over it.’

‘Dad: why don’t we just go home and make one?’.

If we were as optimistic as children we’d be settling the Tau Ceti system by now. Mum is standing a little distance away, with mixed frustration and genuine concern. We all walk home again. The sky clears and the stars sit there, waiting, little lights of possibility in the darkness.

Monday, 11 May 2015

You can know too much

It was a sunny day in Hyde Park, too warm for comfort, and the place was deserted. The few who walked the dusty pathways did so purposefully and paid little attention to the man standing by the lake. Trainee detective Vir Godel stood looking at a small tree for a moment before he clicked on it. Data was instantly pushed into his mind till he knew all about it. It was an olive tree, and was well adapted to the semi-tropical climate of London in the year 2070. Vir then looked down at the dead man lying against the tree, and clicked on him. He had been Pol Nash, and had had a successful career as a hologram sculptor. Victor's goal was to determine how he had died.

Vir backed out of the link, and glanced sideways at a young woman, who was strolling efficiently across the dry, brown grass towards him. For a second, by sight, they liked each other, and smiled. His first impression was that she was beautiful, with butter-blonde hair that caught the early morning sun and a full shape. She also seemed sympathetic. Her first impression of him was that he was distinguished, stolidly handsome and smartly dressed, and therefore at least capable of tying a necktie. However, he clicked on her at about the same time that she clicked on him, and by the time they converged and shook hands they knew each other like siblings, and hated each other. She knew everything about him: his childhood, the way he had voted and his ruthlessness in achieving promotion. He knew her privileged background and her history of dating only men she could use.
'Hello. You're my forensic?' he said, unenthusiastically, shaking her hand.
'No, I've walked up to you for no reason at all' she said, sarcastically 'I'm Beka Brehr'.
'Hm' he said cautiously 'why don't you get down to the examination and then we can report to the chief?'

Ten minutes later, in response to their call, the head and upper torso of their line manager, Sergeant Avrandl, appeared before them, hovering over the grass, covered in soap: only an image in both their minds. He was really in Los Angeles, in the bath, and it was nearly his bedtime.
'Ah. The London case. Any thoughts so far?' he said grumpily.
Beka was ready with her analysis.
'Male caucasian. Died last night between 1 and 3am. One shot to the head. From my reading of early 21st Century novels it looks like what they called a suicide, but there haven't been any for 30 years!'
Vir was contemptuous.
'Killed himself? Impossible! It would be detected and stopped!'
The chief smiled from his bath
'Nevertheless, the fact exists: he is dead. It's your job to explain it, so I'd advise you not to limit yourselves to preconceptions Vir. Explore a bit - that's something that's died out in the last 30 years. Look for anomalies!'

Beka turned to Vir.
'So, you heard the man' she said, 'Nash dies on a Sunday by a lake in Hyde Park. Any thoughts?'
'He was a successful man, with a wife. He could have been killed by loners...'
'Almost all crimes of passion are committed by loners, because they are disconnected from the web. They can experience pure uncontrolled thought. We'll could to bring some in for questioning...'

Beka quickly completed a search of the victim's connection history.
'How odd! He disconnected a few hours before his death.'
'Good' said Vir happily 'That's an anomaly. Usually disconnection is detected within minutes, isn't it?'
'Yes' said Beka, 'and something is done to reconnect...are you listening?'
Vir was staring across the lake.
'There's someone watching us' said Vir suddenly.

As they gazed across the lake, through the air, shimmering in the heat haze, they could see an old mansion, with a red tiled roof. The walls were covered with Boston ivy, which was making an heroic effort to survive the changes in climate, and on the lawn, which sloped down to reeds at the water's edge, stood a tall dark-haired woman dressed in a long white robe, and a large white hat, an UV-shield. She looked like a statue of ice, watching. Within a few seconds, because of his recent training, Vir had accessed her mind's nexus and was looking out of the woman's eyes with her, looking at himself on the other side of the lake.
'I sense guilt and regret' he said 'and I'll have to have a word with my tailor...'

Then the woman must have noticed she had been invaded. She shook her head and changed the access permissions on her mind, and Vir was excluded from her thoughts.

'How interesting!', said Vir, 'She knew Nash, and certain periods of her memory time line have been read-protected.'
'Do they correspond to time periods when Nash was offline?'
'Indeed they do. I just checked.'

An hour or so later, the same woman opened her door to them. She had of course been expecting them, and they followed her into the lounge. From Vir's more academic point of view, the lounge was fitted with oak furniture and panels, and smelled of old books. From Beka's point of view, the room had the scent of lavender, the walls were covered in mirrors, and a chandelier hung from the ceiling. Rooms like this one, called 'ministers' were fashionable. Like a successful politician, ministers had the ability to appear as all things to all people.

The ice statue, called Mrs Chadwik, sat down on the oak (or covered-glass) sofa. Her dress was loose, gathered into folds, and appeared to be a silky navy blue to both Beka and Vi. They had already guessed this was deliberate. Almost all criminal suspects adopted blue clothing when they met detectives. Blue was supposedly the colour of honesty.
'Thanks for your time Mrs Chadwik.'
'It's quite all right. I can guess what this is all about.'
'Did you know a Mr Pol Nash?'
'Yes, I did.' Her throat caught half way through the last word, and she pulled her lips in and looked at them with sudden tears '...that is...we secretly met..'
'Do you mean, on online affair?'
'No, physically I mean, from time to time. My husband knew nothing. We were both passionately in love...Nash and I.'

'Love? Rather unusual these days, Ms Chadwik.' said Vir 'The web keeps us safely rational, so your talk of love puzzles me.'
'I'm aware it must sound odd to you,' she said between sobs, 'but I'm sure that he killed himself because I'd told him our liaison was over.'

Vir watched her bio-signs, over the web, for a hint of dishonesty, but she seemed to be in earnest. He sat back on the sofa.
'I've read, of course, about love and suicide in old novels, but...'
'No! You don't understand...' said Mrs Chadwik, as if she was trying to explain the colour blue to a blind man, which was not far from explaining deep emotions to an on-line, '...we were artists, you see? Pol and I were often off-line for our work. What seems complex when you demand rational reasons, is simple when you accept that emotional reasons can also play a part.
'You're saying that people think differently without the web?' said Vi.
'Feel differently. To understand Pol's motives for suicide you'd have to disconnect from the web, fall in love, and be coldly rejected.' here tears rolled down her face 'I killed him, indirectly, you see...but I couldn't help it. I love my husband too. I had to stop it for his sake.'

They were unsure how to deal with all the emotion pouring out of Mrs Chadwick, but very soon the web reassured her, and the emotion began to drain out of her again. Beka re-accessed Nash's connection record and said to Vir.
'We should have checked further back...his connection was intermittent.'
Mrs Chadwik had recovered:
'The authorities allow us artists a bit of leeway. We can disconnect for short times, and nothing is done. If you don't believe me, search the web using: +"artists" + behaviour".'

Vir scanned the web for information, and found this: Artists depict real or imagined objects without any extraneous information about what the objects are. Opinion is divided about why this is, perhaps the raw beauty that they like is lost somehow with information. As a result, our society, where all real things are hyper-linked to information, is anathema to them, and they disconnect from the web-loop as often as they can.
Beka had also been searching. 'Shocking isn't it?' she said, 'Oh, and our line manager, Avrandl, has just told me, and suggested that you should try going offline.'
'Why me?'
'Because you're a man, like Nash. Haven't you ever heard of role playing?'

Later in the afternoon they were back in Hyde Park, and Vi had been persuaded to become an off-liner. However, excuses were still running around in his head and occasionally escaping through his mouth
'I've never been offline before. I've heard stories about people who disconnect. They can go crazy. One man in the US jumped of a skyscraper, because he thought he could fly'.

'You'll be safe as houses' said Avrandl, who's shaving image was floating under a palm tree. 'Ms Spink will look after you. Now remember', he said, 'when you're disconnected, we can't chat, so we've given you a mobile. We'll talk through that...'
Then Avrandl dissapeared, and his voice emanated from the phone instead.
'You're off-line. Now see if you can understand this for us from Nash's point of view.'

Vir tried mentally clicking on a gravitic elevator he could see rising from Battersea space-port, but instead of a list of passengers and its destination, no information was forthcoming. 'Ha' he thought to himself 'being disconnected is like being drunk. I can't click on anything, and I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to do next, because nothing is reminding me about my to-do list.' That was the horrifying thing. He could do anything! Irrational and dangerous possibilities appeared in his mind, and scared him.

He looked over at Beka, who was sat on a park bench, watching him carefully.
'How beautiful', he thought.
Immediately there was an upwelling in his mind of the information that he had learned about Beka from the web earlier that day, but somehow the facts were now woolly and half-forgotten.
'My God!' he said as Beka's curves nullified his mind and the world grew misty around him.
'So,' she said crossing her arms, 'Have you now become an artist like Pol?'
'Perhaps. Strange! I can't remember why I disliked you before...'

He sat down next to her, as she gazed in some surprise at him, and played with her hair, finally he kissed her on the cheek, breathing in her fragrance. Abruptly, she stood up, 'Have you gone mad? You think it's likely I'd go with an idiot like you?'

A feeling welled up inside him that he had never known before. Indescribable pain! His heart was bursting, because the thing he adored most was rejecting him. It was unbearable. I must escape from myself... escape from yourself?... how do you do that? He stared now at the sunset, and gasped at the shocking beauty of it. The world was bleeding itself, in pain, up into the sky.

Then, mercifully, he was reconnected. Avrandl appeared, now washing his face. The web again explained to him that the sunset that he had thought miraculous, was simply caused by a preferential scattering by the air of blue light from the sun, which left only the red light to pass through directly to his eyes, and that he saw Beka as beautiful only because he had been designed by natural selection to be that way.

The image of Avrandl appeared under the tree again, He finished washing his face, turned towards them and put his hands behind his ears, listening for Vir's verdict on the dead man. Beka sat down again on the bench to listen.
'Nash killed himself, because of regret over loosing Mrs Chadwik,' said Vir.
'How stupid' said Beka, flippantly 'to be dead for such a silly thing.'
'To be dead, yes,' mused Vir. 'but it seems to me he was the only one of us truly alive...'