Monthly Archives: December, 2010

Seeing the future?

One of the first DVDs I owned – indeed, I think, one of the first released in the UK – was ‘Contact’, which stars Jodie Foster in Carl Sagan’s story about the first communications with extra-terrestrial intelligence.

It’s a fun film, and I hadn’t watched it for a while. But I’ve just discovered that amongst the ‘special features’ are several full-length commentaries, something which was quite a novelty back then.

One thing that tickled me while listening to the Director and Producer’s commentary, apart from the nostalgic shots of Netscape in use and the fact that ‘Web’ was always prefixed with ‘World Wide’, was the moment when a flat-screen TV made its appearance.

‘Look at that screen!’, they say, breaking off from their discussions of intergalactic travel. ‘That’s a real TV… We aren’t overlaying those pictures… See how thin is is? You could hang it on your wall!’

Why are you working at that computer?…

…when you could be taking me for a walk?


They don’t make ’em like that any more

Digging through some photos from a few months back, I found this rather fine Nash Ambassador, spotted deep in the Michigan farming countryside.

Curiouser and curiouser

Here’s an excellent Nature article by Ahmed Zewail. Extract:

Some believe that more can be achieved through tightly managed research — as if we can predict the future. I believe this is an unfortunate misconception that affects and infects research funding.

I’ve always liked Einstein’s comment that “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”.

Veni, vidi, wiki?

There’s a good post on the Economist blog about the WikiLeaks affair:

My gripe against Mr Assange is that he takes advantage of the protections of liberal democracies, but refuses to submit himself to them. If he wants to use the libel protections guaranteed by New York State, then he should live in New York, and commit himself to all of the safety and consequences of America’s constitution. If he wants to use Sweden’s whistleblower laws, then he should return to Sweden and let its justice system take its course.

It’s a bit of an over-simplification: if you’re an an anarchist, where should you live, since we no longer have Australia set aside for that purpose? But it’s basically a good point.

This makes me think of the observations by Dawkins et al that those who will flatly deny the validity of the scientific process when it challenges their view of the creation of the earth, or the efficacy of alternative medicines, will then happily get on a plane to fly home, where every minute of their very lives depend on hundreds of years of that same process.

This is the point at which, by the way, if you haven’t seen it, you should watch Louis CK’s comments on ‘Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy’:

Anyway, back to WikiLeaks: The other thing that bugs me is that the feeling that some of those who revel most enthusiastically in the WikiLeaks revelations would be those who would protest most loudly if their own privacy were compromised.

Just as ‘superstition’ is often the name we use for somebody else’s religion – and they for ours – so ‘freedom of information’ is often the name we give to invasion of someone else’s privacy, and, one day, might be used for invasion of ours.

Be careful what you wish for… You may get it!

Update: I should perhaps emphasise that I’m an advocate of freedom of information in general! But we’re starting to hear stories which remind me of what we’ve seen with the Human Rights Act in the past: the more such good intentions get formalised into legal structures, the more people come to think of them as unassailable rights in all circumstances, and the more they can be misused by those wanting to make a quick buck or write a sensational story.

Brand confusion

An elderly colleague turned to me at lunch yesterday.

“Tell me”, he said. “you’re a computer expert… All of these leaks must mean that nobody in government will be able to use email ever again. Just what are the political motivations of an organisation like Wikipedia?”

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser