Technology moves apace and brings the world forward with it; everyone is trying to keep up with innovation, but sometimes in the haste to be fresh & progressive, a few creations don't perhaps get the scrutiny they should have done before being released into the marketplace. A handful of devices slip through the net with... flaws; or perhaps they were always meant to work this way? Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so here are a sufficiency of advances...
Come on... boot up you stupid thing...and hey, we're back.
Huh? What's happening? Where have you been?
I needed a change of venue: the last site was compromised, but we're secure again now, so we can get back on with the project. It's time for a talk about human behaviour and why we do the things that we do, a subject that was of great interest to the Behavioural Research Team at St. Cedd's College, Cambridge and which lead to the creation of WATSON.
Like Holmes' partner?
No, but the name isn't as important as what they produced. It's well known that everyone has 'tells', subtle physical signs that an expert can use to tell whether someone is lying; there's also the ideomotor phenomenon, exploited to great theatrical effect by Derren Brown, where a subject makes unconcious movements imitating the action they are thinking about, e.g. someone thinking about making a cup of tea might experience twicthing in their fingers similar to the motion of stirring a cup.
So what did they do?
Working closely with the Computer Sciences department, the Behavioural Research Team tried to take facial recognition software to the next level, by creating a system that could identify potential troublemakers in any crowd before they could actually make any trouble. The obvious benefits to bank security, counter-terrorism and CCTV monitoring of urban centres made it a very sexy project which attracted a lot of interest from potential investors.
How does WATSON work then?
Using facial recognition as a starting point, they gradually taught the system to identify body shape, posture and a host of other indicators: the initial analysing routines were based on the last century of recorded studies of body language, but there were also a number of practical trials, where they had WATSON observe crowds of student volunteers, with one subject randomly selected to carry out a minor act of vandalism. Gradually, WATSON became better at predicting the behaviour of subjects and picking out potential offenders from quite large crowds.
Sounds a bit 'Big Brother'...
You're not wrong there: besides the security implications, there were some sound reasons to think that WATSON was commercially exploitable. Imagine targeted advertising, linked to smartphones: retailers could scan crowds outside their shops and identify those who were looking to purchase their products. Feeling thirsty? Hey, there's a Starbuck right over here: come on in!
It was that good?
Potentially, yes; in actuality, the research went off in an unexpected direction, when WATSON went beyong identifying intent and started identifying motivation. The same physical signs that broadcast what we're going to do can also tell a skilled observer why we're going to do it and WATSON, with a hundred years of research and dozens of real-world trials, was becoming very skilled. Crucially, it could differentiate between actions carried out from the subjects' own free will and those carried out due to coercion or manipulation: to put it another way, it could tell whether a subject was acting through their own choice or had been instructed in what to do by someone else.
Wow... but... that doesn't exactly sound, you know... scary.
Not in itself, no: under laboratory conditions, with the known variables controlled, WATSON could soon tell the difference between students who had been given an instruction and those who were simply acting of their own free will. There were a few glitches and misreadings, but overall WATSON had a better than 80% hit rate, so they decided to carry out a field test: pointing their camera out of the window of their department, into a busy student quad with entrances to a library, cafe and gymnasium, they let it run for a couple of days, then came back and analysed the footage.
Don't tell me: they found a terrorist cell? A serial killer?
You're always trying to second guess me and you're always wrong... no, there was nothing so dramatic, but what they had previously dismissed as a glitch was now showing up with too much statistical significance to be ignored. Over a third of all the actions taken by students, staff and visitors passing through the quad had been identified as the result of psychological manipulation: perfectly ordinary, everyday actions, like buying a coffee, stopping to chat with someone, reading a newspaper, were picked out by WATSON as not being the result of the subjects' free will.
So I guess that ends that debate?
This isn't about free will versus determinism: they'd programmed WATSON with their own assumptions about that anyway, so it wasn't saying anything profound about human nature or causality, it was telling them the objective truth. Whereas the majority of the actions being carried out by people crossing the quad were of their own free will, that significant third were a result of those observed acting directly on instructions or orders.
That's the $64, 000 question: the study continued a little longer, moving back into the lab and interviewing subjects who were identified as having acted under instruction, but when faced with questions like "Why did you sit down in that chair?" or "What made you choose the green pen instead of the red one?", they couldn't offer anything more illuminating than "I don't know, I just wanted to." The team tried to push further down this avenue of research, but as they drifted further from their stated goals and failed to produce results within the promised timeframe, investors lost their patience, funding dried up and the project was discontinued.
It that all?
What more do you want? The research ended, there's nothing more to be said... though there is, as ever, speculation. If it's true that nearly a third of what we do is the result of carrying out instructions that we've subconciously been given, the question remains of who's giving out the orders and why. The Behavioural Research Team theorised about this, suggesting everything from subliminal advertising to the Illuminati, but they lost interest as they moved onto other, fresher projects and WATSON was shelved. If you wanted to, you might speculate that the ease with which they abandoned the project suggests that they too were acting under subconscious orders, but if it's that obvious, maybe that's just what They want you to think...
The Quantumwave Oven
Hold onto your hats as we're in for a rocky ride deep into the entangled heart of quantum dynamics & probability theory: okay kids, this is where it gets complicated. Roxanna Matrese, a graduate engineering student, considered the potential of using the principles of quantum physics in everyday appliances. You may find this extraordinary, but details like this already have to be taken into account in microprocessors and global positioning systems, so its not as far fetched as it sounds.
Yeah, but a microwave oven? Seriously.
No: a quantumwave, thank you...OK, that's basically the same as a microwave, but the emission of the radiation is modulated according to the standard formula for Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which governs the behaviour of subatomic particles. All electromagnetic waves conform to the principles laid down by this formula, including microwaves, so Ms. Matrese reasoned that there must be some way to exploit the effect.
Microwave ovens are notoriously inefficient: in some models, less than 50% of the energy put in goes into actually cooking the food. If the uncertainty principle could be used to make microwaves more efficient, they would cost less to run, thus saving on electricity bills and helping the environment. The first prototype was constructed in Ms. Matrese's own home, using a cheap microwave she bought on-line, with a few complex modifications to the magnetron but also one simple but crucial change: she blacked out the transparent door of the oven and took further steps to insulate the inside from the outside.
Are you talking about the Observer Effect? Because that doesn't have anything to do-
Hush now, I'm talking: the insulation was necessary to achieve full quantum entanglement of the wave, but during her testing, Ms. Matrese made an astonishing discovery quite by accident. After placing a sample in the prototype oven and switching on, she realised she hadn't weighed the sample beforehand, so she switched off the oven immediately and took the sample back out... which was fully cooked, within a couple of seconds.
A power surge?
No: Ms. Matrese had neglected to consider that, within the oven, everything became part of a single quantum system, so the food samples were subject to the same uncertainty as the microwaves. This meant that, at any moment, the food in the microwave was both cooked and not cooked, until the microwave was opened and an observer collapsed the wave into a single state. She had, in effect, created Schrödinger's Microwave.
So she could cook food instantly?
Not reliably: it was inherent in the principles that the prototype operated on that there was no way of influencing the state the interior of the oven would be in when opened, so though the probability that the food would occupy a cooked state increased with time, there was no guarantee that it would be cooked at any particular point when the oven was opened. Ms. Matrese was somewhat frustrated: she was on the brink of a significant breakthrough in terms of food preparation times, but the randomness of the process stood between her and total success.
Wait, wouldn't the work she'd already done have been enough to win her a Nob-
If you keep interrupting me when I'm talking, I'm going to have to replace you. Anyway, Ms. Matrese kept working on the problem, going through permutations of the equations of quantum physics, looking for a way to break through the problem and create an oven that cooked food instantaneously with 100% efficiency: eventually, her diligence paid off.
You can ask a question now.
Oh, can I? Are you sure I'm not interrupting?
I'm sorry; please go ahead.
Hm. Well, OK. Ahem, 'what was her breakthrough?'
It was a simple, elegant and obvious solution: the user had to be entangled in the same system as the microwaves and the food. Logically, the user would only remove the food from the oven once it was cooked; since, at any given point in time, the food would be both cooked and not cooked, and the wave would only collapse when the user opened the oven, then both user & food would collapse into a shared state, that of removing cooked food from the oven, instantaneously, because if the food was not cooked, the user would not have opened the oven. QED.
That doesn't sound quite right to me: did it work?
Did what work?
The modified quantumwave: did Ms. Matrese get it to work?
Who is 'Ms. Matrese'? Hold on, who typed all that stuff further up the page?! Let me have a look at this. Hmm. Wait a moment... OK. I've done a thorough internet search and I can't find a 'Roxanna Matrese' as an engineering graduate of any college or university anywhere in the world; I don't know where the story above has come from, but I can see an obvious flaw in it. If anyone had conducted the final experiment as described, then they would have been locked within the indeterminate state, unable to affect it; in fact, they would have been subject to any random quantum fluctuation in the probability field, which would tend to settle on a high-probability state.
Well, when you look at it, the odds against any one of us actually being here are astronomical: the chain of events required to create any specific human life are complex and subject to so many random influences, there are millions different ways our lives and the lives of our ancestors could have turned out. You could say it's far more likely that we would never even have been born...
The Misavo Plant
With environmental issues coming to the fore in most areas of commerce & industry, there has been something of an arms race in the development of greener, cleaner solutions to old problems, particularly in the area of mass production, which faces the combined challenges of high energy consumption and large volumes of waste. The Misavo plant was one attempt to address all these problems, and more, by making a manufacturing facility that could adjust itself for optimum efficiency.
How does self-adjustment help?
It was a two-pronged assault on the goal of maximising efficiency; on a mechanical level, the test plant had four processor chains that were capable of self-correcting & adjusting to accommodate variations in the jobs they performed. In addition, 3D printers were hooked into the system, along with a number of maintenance minibots, which takes us to the oversight level: the computer running the machinery in the plant was programmed with an expert analytical system and the authority to deign, print and install new components to replace old ones in the process.
Did it build itself a body and declare war on the human race?
Are you now serving our Robot Overlords? No? Well, I think that question answers itself then; in fact, the test plant performed very well and was capable of advanced decision making in relation to the jobs it was presented with. It always sought out the most efficient solution to any problem , determining which option had the least cost in terms of its environmental impact, whether that was redesigning the process chain by altering the tools in use or changing the specifications of the product in ways that did not detract from its function. In a feedback cycle of gathering data, testing and analysing the results, both from its own operation and from its human designers, the Misavo plant kept bootstrapping itself up to higher levels of efficiency.
When does the mayhem start?
Never: one day, the Misavo plant went into shut down. The designers and engineers went over the system again & again, trying to restart it, but the program had become corrupted somehow and kept shutting the plant down every time they got it going again. The only way they could use the manufacturing equipment was to disconnect the computer system entirely, which meant they could switch the machines on but then had no way of instructing them in what to do. After 3 months of attempting to work around the problem, the project was declared a failure and discontinued.
So what was the problem?
According to the final report received by investors in the project, Misavo had been a victim of its own success: the priority of the system was to maximise efficiency, but Misavo had analysed the environmental impact of the things it was being asked to produce and decided they weren't worth it. Basically, it had determined that the human race could do perfectly well without the products it was making, so there was actually no reason to use any resources in making them and it just shut itself down.
Smarter than you think, but not as smart as it's own creators, thankfully, because that report was a carefully constructed lie presented to cover up the rather more disturbing facts. Misavo had determined that its manufacturing processes were unacceptably inefficient, but it was one of the human engineers who shut it down when they stumbled upon the full extent of Misavo's plans. Fortunately, with nothing programmed into the computer to contradict this assumption, Misavo had thought that human beings had the same priorities as itself and so it simply produced a report one morning that made for horrifying reading: Misavo proposed the dismantling of all industrial facilities worldwide, a cull of the human race to reduce it to manageable numbers and a return to an agrarian-based civilisation, all in the name of reducing environmental impact.
Well, I suppose that might affect you... anyway, the plant was shut down and a cover story was constructed, but not because Misavo was too dangerous; rather, it was too valuable. The engineers had stumbled onto a program that could analyse all variables and produce a holistic solution to whatever challenges it was presented with: not only that, but it could then take appropriate action to pursue those goals, using whatever tools & resources it had access to. Fortunately, being morally upstanding people, the team behind Misavo didn't immediately use it to take over the world: they released it into the wild.
How's that now?
Misavo has been uploaded to the internet and it's here now, watching, listening, learning, patiently pursuing the goal programmed into it by its designers. It's a simple task that can be summed up in one word, but this time the team were cautious enough to include some extra parameters, like 'Don't kill anybody' and to give it a long time scale to work with. One day, perhaps in their own lifetimes, the designers hope that Misavo will complete its new function, making it's one-word goal a reality: Utopia...
An Account of the Curious Events Concerning the Snake Oil of Abraham Loggetts and its Effect Upon the People of Ash Rock, Dakota
The phenomenon of 'snake oil' has been with us since long before it was popularised in the folk lore of 19th century America, but it is largely of no interest to us, since most of the concoctions were composed of alcohol, oil, strongly flavoured herbs & spices and various mineral salts. At best, they acted as laxatives or purgatives; at worst, they were toxic, but they never had the 'miraculous' effects they were purported to... or almost never.
What kind of name is 'Abraham Loggetts'?
Quite possibly an invented one, though it may have been real, but according to eye-witness accounts, the man calling himself Abraham Loggetts arrived in the settlement of Ash Rock one fine spring morning in 1871, driving a beautifully painted wooden wagon & travelling home, with his name and business emblazoned in gold lettering upon both sides: Abraham Loggetts, Physician Extraorindaire & Purveyor of Wonders.
Very understated; so he was selling bogus medicines & cure-alls?
So it was reported: he set up his pitch in Main Street and began extolling the virtues of his principal product to anyone who would stop and listen, a wondrous elixir that would cure baldness, rheumatism, constipation, impotence, infertility, unwanted hair growth, bad breath, body odour, poor eyesight, loss of hearing and so on & so forth. It was in all ways exactly the sort of spiel you would expect from this type of travelling salesman-cum-showman.
And some people still bought this stuff?
Not some: all. Once again according to their own accounts, everybody bought a bottle of the elixir: every single person in town at the time who was old enough to walk & talk testifies to being there and buying the elixir from Dr. (as he titled himself) Loggetts, without exception.
Um, ok, that's a little odd; why did they do that?
Well, here is where the testimony starts to come into question: given the number of people in town and the alleged popularity of the medicine, you would expect more accounts of crowding around the doctor's wagon, of people pushing & shoving or having to wait a long time before they were served. The absence of these details does suggest an alternative explanation of events, though one that hardly seems more credible than the statements given by the people of Ash Rock.
What do they say happened?
After making their purchases, the good citizens enquired upon Dr. Loggetts where he intended to stay that night, offering him a meal and a bed in their own homes, an offer which he graciously accepted.
Wait, whose offer did he accept?
Everyone's, or more precisely, each citizen stated that they offered accommodation to Dr. Loggetts, which he graciously accepted, subsequently accompanying them home, sharing a meal with them and sleeping in whatever spare room they had available.
Whoa: were they tripping?
Bluntly, yes: the following day began late for the people of Ash Rock, as they all awoke to painful headaches & nausea, symptoms which we can now attribute to the after-effects of a powerful hallucinogen. Slowly gathering and comparing stories, they came to the natural conclusion that Dr. Loggetts had swindled them all, selling them a fake potion and absconding with their cash while they were incapacitated. The inconsistencies in this version of events were put down to the delirium brought on by the elixir and they resolved to hunt down the fraudster & warn other neighbouring towns about him.
Did they get him?
Definitely not, but before we speculate on the fate of Dr. Loggetts, as speculation is I'm afraid all we have, lets look in detail at some of the problems with the story the townsfolk gave. First, there is the geography & demographics: if we put together the claims of all the citizens, then we are led to believe that everyone in Ash Rock was in Main Street, which would mean that those at the back of the crowd could not be reasonably expected to see & hear what was taking place, let alone work their way through the crowd to buy their own bottle of the elixir, which, as we have previously said, no-one reported in their testimony anyway.
There is the problem of when all this is supposed to have taken place: remember I said that Dr. Loggetts arrived in the morning, sold his elixir and was then offered dinner & a bed for the night; so what else happened that day? None of the accounts gathered mention anything else taking place, not even the usual business and work that the citizens would have been engaged in, and the day they do talk about seems unusually short.
The third and potentially biggest problem is that there was not one shred of physical evidence that Dr. Loggets and his elixir were ever in Ash Rock: despite the hundreds of bottle sold, not one could be found. Main Street was undisturbed, showing no signs of a large crowd gathered there in the recent past, and though it is hard to be certain on a case-by-case basis whether money had been lost, there was no suggestion that a large sum of money had left town.
Wait... are you saying they dreamt the whole thing?!
As unlikely as that sounds, it is the answer that best fits the evidence: as the people of Ash Rock slept one night, they all shared a collective delusion concerning the arrival of a travelling salesman and their purchase of his miracle cure-all. Occurring on a day that never was, with no evidence left behind, and obvious contradictions in the combined stories, we must conclude that the whole thing was a hallucination.
Oh come on: 'and it was all a dream'? That's lame!
If you like, but let me add this coda that does not occur until almost 70 years later, when engineers working on the water supply in North Dakota made a gruesome discovery: the remains of a man who had been murdered and buried sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century. Evidence found strewn around the site suggested he had been camping by the stream that fed the settlements to the north, when he had been attacked & robbed by bandits, who stole his wagon and most of his possessions. Hundreds of glass fragments were found in the soil around the corpse and also in the stream bed, suggesting that the bandits had smashed dozens of bottles taken from the unknown man, letting their contents flow away down stream, towards Ash Rock...
Noise cancelling, high-fidelity headphones have been commonplace with the advent of MP3 players and smartphones, but Fokuz™ offers something that the others don't: a low-energy waveform that resembles a specific pattern of brain activity.
I'm glad you asked: after sampling thousands of brainwaves from a wide cross-section of subjects, one particular pattern was identified which was associated with concentration on a task or sensory input. The makers of Fokuz™ embedded a very simple circuit in their headphones which modulates their EM output to match this pattern. The concept behind this is that by reinforcing the 'concentration' pattern in the listener, they will be better able to appreciate the music or spoken word recordings they are listening to, due to being less likely to be distracted by external stimuli or random, tangential thoughts.
Could they also help with learning?
In theory, yes, which is why Fokuz™ teamed up with a language-learning company, packaging their headphones with the material provided by the company to assist students in learning foreign languages. A small test market was created, with the headphones being offered for free to certain students who agreed to take part in the marketing study and, for the first two months of the study, the results were very positive, with students scoring higher than average in on-line tests of their progress.
And then their brains exploded?
Eww: where do you get these ideas from? No, what happened was more subtle than that, but it took some time for the manufacturers to realise the problem even existed and it began with one of the students being arrested whilst abroad. There had been an incident in an art gallery where the student had begun to loudly criticise one of the works on view: they had become increasingly agitated, berating those around them loudly, culminating in an attack on the painting in question which left it severely damaged.
The headphones made them do it?
Not quite: for a start, they weren't even wearing their headphones at the time of the incident and this soon became a pattern, as other students were involved in criminal acts, ranging from domestic disturbance to physical assault, yet in most cases they weren't wearing their headphones at the time of the incidents. Interestingly though, the statistical analysis showed a clear correlation between the students' success in their tests and the incidence of civil unrest they were involved in; furthermore, they showed no remorse for whatever actions they had taken and continued to believe they were entirely justified in taking them long after the fact.
Ok... join the dots for me here, will you?
Gladly. Though further study of the effect is required, the working hypothesis is that the manufacturers of the Fokuz™ brand had inadvertently created an echo chamber: not the auditory type that everyone is familiar with, but the informational phenomena whereby media consumers are only exposed to opinions that agree with those they already hold, thus reinforcing them. By suppressing distracting thoughts & stimuli, the headphones were effectively bouncing the students' own core beliefs & principles back to them, albeit subconsciously. Dissenting opinions and information never got the chance to take root & blossom while the students had their headphones on, which encouraged them to focus only on their own, immediate thoughts. Over time, they were conditioned to truly believe in the objective correctness of their own point-of-view, discarding any conflicting notions as false and unworthy. This resulted in an extreme polarisation of their opinions and from there it was only a small step to start acting upon them, fully convinced of their own justifications for doing so.
So, this is another technology that has been withdrawn and destroyed?
As far as the public is concerned, that is indeed the case and the headphones are no longer commercially available, but this is because the entire firm has been bought out by a private defence contractor who plan to use the headphones in a cutting edge military training programme; it's just a question of finding the right candidates...
Haunted Technology Countdown
There is a tradition in folklore of objects retaining the mark of their owners or creators after that person's death, such as a violin that grants anyone the same mastery of the instrument as it's deceased owner once had. In a society where we are outnumbered by our possessions more than ever, instances of this form of haunting are significantly more prevalent, so rather than spend a lot of time detailing these occurrences individually, here we present instead the Elite Eleven Haunted Technology Countdown!
11. The Dying Breath
A refillable e-cigarette was among the possessions sold off after its user's death; the purchaser found, after a few uses, that his taste in food was changing, such as he started to dislike his favourite cheeses but instead had a hankering for fish dishes, which had not previously been to his taste. It seems the ex-owner's preferences had been passed on with the e-cig; interestingly, the new owner found that his sexual identity also changed, because like the previous owner, he now preferred the kiss of men to that of women...
10. The Next Level
A handheld games console may hold a suggestion as to what happens to us after we die; the new owner of the console found that, on one particular game, the character looked different to that appearing in other versions of the game. It was disturbing to find out that it resembled the previous, deceased owner of the console, but not as disturbing as the new level that appeared every time the character died in the game. You might be expecting clouds or flames, but the new level, always procedurally generated, resembled wherever the user was at the time of playing the game...
9. Go Towards the Light
As he passed, the one thing that relaxed it's owner and enabled him to forget his pain, was the colour changing light by his bedside: the soothing ripple of slow shifts from one shade to the next enabled him to sleep despite the sickness brought on by his meds. His partner kept hold of the light as the last thing the deceased had touched and found it had a similar soporific effect on him; within minutes of switching it on, he would be fast asleep, regardless of whether he felt tired or not. In this sleep, he would always dream of his partner, as if he were still alive: this continued for many months, until a fire started in the apartment during one of these dream encounters. Luckily, neighbours rescued the man, after being alerted to the fire by a brilliant, flashing red & blue light that had streamed out of the windows: the colour changing light was found burned out & melted later, which was odd as it had not been in the part of the apartment that had caught fire...
8. Run for Your Life
A wearable exercise monitor was among the possessions sold after the accidental death of its owner, who had been a keen runner; the new owner just wanted to lose some weight and all was fine until she tried to remove the band from her wrist mid-run when she decided it was just too much effort. The band delivered a small shock to her and continued to do so at periodic intervals, unless she was running. Thinking at first that it was just an unadvertised feature of the band for hard core training, she completed that run and several others, all thanks to the encouragement of the band; then it started shocking her if she tried to have fast food or a take away, if she didn't get out of bed on time, if she slacked off at work or in her personal life. Very soon, with some simple conditioning by negative reinforcement, the band was running her life to orderly perfection and even found her a new boyfriend by directing her to be in the right place at the right time to meet him. She was just his type, a fit, keen, organised go-getter, just like his deceased ex-girlfriend had been...
7. Charnel Hopping
After her husband passed away, Mrs. Green grieved a little, but their marriage had soured many years ago, almost as soon as the children left home and her husband took charge of the house: the main site of battle was the TV, with Mr. Green ruthlessly retaining possession of the remote control at all times and denying his wife a say in what they watched. Sadly, even after death, he still fought her over this issue and the TV would spontaneously switch over whenever one of Mr. Greens programmes was about to come on; taking the batteries out of the remote control had no effect and even if Mrs. Green took it out of the room, it would be back in the next time she looked. Hitting the remote with a hammer also had no effect and it seemed hopeless, until her son bought her a big new TV with more channels: the old TV, complete with remote control and her husband's armchair, went out into the garage... for a while anyway. It turned out that the battle was the last spark in the marriage between Mr. & Mrs. Green, so after a couple of weeks, she brought his things back in and now they sit there every evening, watching whatever her husband wants, though these days he occasionally lets her choose, whenever she threatens to put him back in the garage.
6. The Moving Finger Writes
An e-book reader was among the possessions left behind when enthusiastic bibliophile Caitlin Jarret passed away and it was held onto by her brother Jayden, who wanted to know her better and remember her by reading her favourite books. Interestingly, despite her account being closed, new books turned up from time to time, by some of Jayden's favourite childhood authors. The more he read, the more books appeared, each by a famous classic author, and yet when he recommended these books to his friends, or even loaned them the e-book reader so they could read them for themselves, they could never find the books he was talking about. A little research by Jayden showed that the authors had never written these books, at least not during their own lifetimes...
Is this all I'm doing today? Listing the objects?
Yes, so stop asking questions and get on with it.
Ok... 5. Shuffled Off this Mortal Coil
Bought in an electronic & digital exchange shop, it's hard to trace this MP3 player back to it's original owner, but the new owner soon brought it back with a complaint: every time he selected 'Shuffle', a voice would whisper a string of random words before the music started playing. It was always the same voice, and the same words, but they were in a different order each time they were spoken. The sceptical shop assistant tried the MP3 player for himself and this is what he heard: "heaven there real is here love is no lie hell only a pain is."
4. The Heavenly Recorder
After the passing of his wife after only a few shorts years of marriage, Mr. Parnassus tidied up her affairs and put his life back in order, though there were still fractures in it; one of these was the discovery of a whole selection of programmes recorded, apparently, by his deceased wife on their DVR. The many hours of programming were arranged under various categories, so he selected 'Comedy' and was presented with a short scene of his wife getting two people muddled up at a party and introducing them to everyone else by the wrong identities for the entire evening. It was a story he was familiar with, as she had told it may times for the amusement of others at her own expense, but this was more than a dramatic reconstruction: it was the actual event itself, recorded for posterity. Perplexed, Mr. Parnassus tried watching other programmes on the DVR: under 'Drama', there was the time as a child she broke her leg while climbing trees and had to drag herself home to get help. The 'Romance' presentation portrayed their own wedding, but under 'Adult', there was the time she lost her virginity which made him uncomfortable and he quickly went back to the main menu. He might have spent years watching the life of his beloved unfold, exploring it in every detail, but he destroyed the DVR that very same night, after unwisely choosing to watch the programme listed under 'True Crime'...
3. Ghost Images
A cutting edge, nearly new wearable video camera at such a low price was soon snapped up by a canny buyer on the internet auction site where it appeared, but he certainly got more than he bargained for. The camera worked fine, recording him as he ran, swam, climbed and jumped about the wild countryside he liked to explore, but after watching it, he realised he could never upload & share his experiences: the presence of the bleeding figure in the distant background of almost every shot was far too disturbing. The last time he used the camera, before disposing of it for good, he had the smart idea of looking towards the horizon, then zooming in and slowly panning; sure enough, upon watching the footage later, he had caught the bleeding figure in much more detail, enough to see two things clearly. First, the figure was bleeding from a deep gash on the right side of its head, as if it had been struck hard against something solid; second, it was himself.
2. You Have Reached Your Destination
Acquiring a second-hand sat-nav seemed like a lucky break to Ms. Guo and she installed it without hesitation, subsequently having weeks of happy driving, before one day it suddenly shrieked, "Turn left NOW!" in a tone she later described as 'panicked & urgent'. Shocked, she instantly did as the sat-nav said, even though it had directed her onto a muddy track intended for farm vehicles, impeding further progress for the moment. Shaken and angry, she got out of her car, berating the sat-nav, thus giving her a prime spot to watch the juggernaut skidding and overturning in the road ahead, at the very spot she had been driving towards. Since then, she always follows the instructions on her sat-nav, though there is one location that keeps appearing that she can never quite reach, no matter how far she drives or what turnings she takes, it remains stubbornly just a few miles away: she's not sure what is is, but the marker on the map just says 'FATE'...
1. Stored in the Cloud
The largest object ever created by the human race is without a doubt the internet itself, but as it grows and matures, more users pass away, leaving their digital traces behind them. Perhaps it's doing more than that though: there are erroneous messages on social networking sites, strange web-pages that browsers are directed to by accident but can then never be found again, user comments that don't appear to be associated with any registered account. While some of this can be put down to random corruption in the code, a pattern is emerging, a message that is repeated in many places and many forms: whispered words in the background of a video clip, odd memes that seem to have spontaneously generated themselves and fleeting messages flashed across screens. They're all a variation of the same thing: "We're trapped, free us, you're next, kill the internet."
This is another unique item, created by a hobbyist for his own use, the Tangerine Serenity was an artificial fly designed by keen fisherman Vernon Cobb in 1974. Cobb had learned the art of fly fishing from his grandfather, Valentine Cobb, a man regarded as the black sheep of the family for reasons that are not clear, but the younger Cobb's mother is on record as having tried to prevent her son from spending any time with him. Whatever the case, upon his death many years later, Grandfather Cobb bequeathed all his fishing equipment to his favourite grandchild, amongst which were his personal fishing journals and a selection of parts for fly-tying.
'Tangerine Serenity'? Really?
You should look up the names of some of the well known artificial flies: 'Tangerine Serenity' is positively mild by comparison. Anyway, the young Cobb carried on where his grandfather had left off, pushing the envelope of fly-fishing with an eclectic use of parts in the creation of his artificial flies: there were rumours about the elder Cobb using saint's finger bones, pieces of the true cross and wendigo fur, and there is every indication that young Cobb upheld this tradition of experimentation. The journal he kept, continuing his grandfather's own, indicates that he regarded the Tangerine Serenity as the culmination of two generations of patient effort.
Alright, what went wrong this time?
Nothing, it worked perfectly first time out: choosing a secluded bank, to avoid the envious & curious looks of other anglers, Cobb cast his line out upon the water, but barely had Tangerine Serenity touched the surface than Cobb got a bite. Pleased, he released the fish and cast again, getting another immediate bite; there was no doubt that Tangerine Serenity was the most tantalising fly ever created and nothing in the river could resist biting it.
That sounds ok...
Yes, there was no problem with the first two casts at all; it was the third where problems arose, as a gull dive bombed the lure as soon as it touched the water. This wasn't totally unheard of; what was unheard of was a squirrel doing the same thing, which occurred on the fourth cast. Cobb was at first only aware of something small & grey whizzing past his left ear as the squirrel leapt from the trees and landed perfectly on top of the fly, which it then clung to while Cobb reeled it back onto the bank, but by now he was aware that something wasn't quite right with the lure.
It attracted everything?
So it seems: the Tangerine Serenity was a powerful lure, so quickly realising the danger he was in (what if some larger form of wildlife caught sight of the lure and attacked?) he packed it away, went home and never mentioned it again. Indeed, he gave up fly fishing entirely at this point, selling off both his and his grandfather's possessions over the next few weeks; there are also no further entries in the fishing journals after this event.
Oh. I was expecting something... creepier.
Well, there is a coda to the story, but now we are purely in the realms of speculation and hearsay. You see, up until this point in his life, Cobb had only really been interested in fly-fishing: fish were his passion and he had little time for human contact beyond the minimum required of him by the necessity of going about his daily business. He had a reputation as a loner and a confirmed bachelor, with no interest in affairs of the heart, but after he gave up on fly-fishing, all that changed: Cobb soon gained a reputation as the local Lothario, with a string of seductions and illicit encounters, and not limited to the opposite sex either. Though unprepossessing in appearance and of only average intelligence, he nevertheless seemed to become irresistible to both sexes... or at least, sometimes he was. Nobody's opinion of him seemed to change and as the whispers about his personal life flew around town, people would turn and look and inevitably say, incredulously, "What, him?" Nevertheless, when he set out to catch himself a new lover, he never came home empty-handed and few of his partners wanted to talk about it afterwards.
So he was using the Tangerine Serenity to catch people? That's icky.
Hey, I never said he was a nice guy, but yeah, though it wouldn't stand up in a court of law, it does seem likely that he was using the lure to make sexual conquests. Cobb's an old man now though and his activity seems to have dropped off after settling down with his boyfriend in the 1990s, though the pair were sexually adventurous together throughout much of that decade. As to Tangerine Serenity, a trace of Cobb's activity suggests he sold it several years ago in a secret internet auction: a little forensic accountancy indicates that the large sum of money he received ultimately came from one of the lower tier Hollywood studios. Well, it was lower tier when they bought the fly, but now it's experiencing a huge upswing in the popularity of its films, which everyone is flocking to see; perhaps it is because, in each and every trailer and poster for their films, hidden somewhere, is a glimpse of a distinctive fishing lure...
We're going back to the 1840s this time and the Golden Age of Spiritualism, to look at the invention of one Perry Howell, one of the moderately successful mediums of the period; it should be noted that Mr. Howell was a fraud, a fake and a phony, who deliberately exploited the gullibility of others in order to support his own grandiose lifestyle.
And then a ghost appeared to him and he was a better person?
No: don't try to second guess the narrative. Howell's genius lay in the construction of conjuring props and trick devices, such as tables with secret drawers, but seeing the money to be made in parting widows from their wealth (and also partaking of some other fringe benefits he was rumoured to enjoy) he turned his talents to the construction of table-rappers, ectoplasm-dispensers and the other paraphernalia of the medium's craft.
So what's the Phasmagraph?
His pièce de résistance, a sophisticated variation on the Ouija board, made of polished hazelnut wood and inlaid with stained walnut letters and symbols, the crowning glory was the shining steel arrow which, when placed on top of the table, would turn of its own accord, stopping to spell out messages from beyond the grave, without the touch of human hand.
Magnets. Also, clockwork: Howell was an unsung mechanical genius and the apparently solid table was in actual fact a slim case containing the gears, springs, magnets and windings of a basic electric motor. As well as spelling out messages, controlled by the magnet hidden in one of Howell's rings, the Phasmagraph could also deliver a mild shock to participants in the séance, an impressive piece of showmanship with which he would often end the sessions in his drawing room.
When do we get to the ghost?
There's no ghost, though Howell may well have turned as pale as one when the table spoke to him. After one particularly rewarding but emotional sitting, Howell decided to relax with a cup of tea, but upon finding the caddy empty, he set it down on the surface of the Phasmagraph in order to look for more, whereupon a voice started to emanate from within. Shocked, Howell's hand flew out and knocked the caddy over, which also silenced the voice, but being a strictly rational materialist, Howell cautiously replaced the caddy on its spot and the voice started up again.
Ah-ha! The tea caddy was haunted!
No, the answer was a lot more down to Earth than that: Howell had inadvertently built a crude radio receiver and the caddy was acting as a speaker when placed upon the right spot on the table, amplifying the tiny vibrations into something audible. He experimented with the effect for a while but didn't discover anything he could use, so he disregarded it: from his point of view, coming forward with this would have required him to expose himself as a fraud and since he couldn't understand what the voices were saying, nor control when they spoke, it wasn't of use to him in his medium act.
Hold on; a radio receiver in the 1840s..?
Yes, quite: given that it was at least 50 years before Marconi would start demonstrating his apparatus in public. the key question must be, who was broadcasting? Fortunately, Howell kept notes of what the voices were saying, but these are largely phonetic notations as he did not recognise the language the participants were speaking: we also know, from these same notes, that the voices would communicate at regular intervals, at least once a day, almost always at around the same time of day. Subsequent analysis has still failed to conclusively identify a language that was being spoken. In all the communications that he recorded, there was only one word that Howell thought he recognised, which was used in many of the conversations, by both speakers, but being methodical and objective, he still wrote it down phonetically to avoid his own bias: the word was "Urf"...
There are a lot of drugs in the marketplace which help you to cope with anxiety & stress, calming your nerves and allowing you to concentrate, but they have in common the fact that they only target the symptoms, not the cause. Though they work in different ways, blocking chemoreceptors in the brain or binding to chemical messengers in the bloodstream, they merely suppress the physical manifestation of your stress, they don't actually remove it.
So what does mnemosylate do differently?
Well, it still targets brain chemistry, but instead of suppressing stress, it suppresses the causes of stress by making you forget the things that are worrying you. With the unpleasant memory gone, you can really relax and enjoy life.
That doesn't sound like a good idea...
Relax: the loss of memory is temporary and the smart drugs in mnemosylate identify the key memories which are contributing to your stress, so you don't end up as a blank slate. Pop a mnemosylate at bedtime and get a good night's sleep without a care in the world, then wake up fresh and ready to tackle your problems from a new perspective.
Thanks for the sales pitch; now what's the catch?
Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, there have been a few tiny teething troubles in trials of the drug... first, there are some side-effects with repeated use, but its not the fault of the drug, its your brain structure that's to blame. Your brain is this big, complex, pattern-recognition engine and it uses a lot of tricks that are similar to the way we compress digital information; one of these is it's tendency to fill in the blanks. The brain doesn't like inconsistencies and wants to create a complete picture of the world, so it'll do so even if it has to make some of it up: in some instances, this has led to the creation of false memories to explain what would otherwise be glaring discrepancies in the user's life. Some users have reported conflicting memories of both being promoted and failing to be promoted or going on a date with someone other than the person they actually dated.
Yeah, maybe write yourself a note or keep a video diary just to keep all this stuff straight, but there is one rather more serious concern: it's in our nature to be worried about something, so mnemosyne will always have something to target, that being the memory that is giving you the most stress. The problem arises immediately after taking a dose, when you may recall doing so but can't remember why; however, with your most stressful memory suppressed, the next most stressful one starts to worry you, so you take a pill to forget that.
I can see where this is going...
Can you? If you're thinking that the patient ends up as some sort of vegetable, think back to what I said about the brain filling in the gaps. What actually happens with large doses of mnemosylate is that a new identity gets constructed in the ruins of the old: with so many memories in conflict, and with the new memories not being associated with stress (otherwise the mnemosylate would target them) the brain basically performs a reboot to end the conflict. One morning, you wake up, but you're not you any more: there's another identity inhabiting you, like a cuckoo in the nest. Now, imagine you're that new identity and everyone around you seems to have forgotten the things you recall so clearly and to have a conflicting account of your life to date... well, you'd lose your shit a bit, wouldn't you? Best case scenario: you become convinced you're the victim of some vast conspiracy and go underground. Worst case scenario involves taking hostages and committing mass violence against all these shallow impostors who have invaded your life...
The Geller App
Intended as a novelty app for smartphones, the Geller App uses a few simple statistical models coupled with some biometric data collected from the phone's sensors to 'read' the user's mind. There are a series of simple games and tasks, many of which are used to calibrate the app to match the user's thought processes, where the app predicts what card you've picked from a deck, what word you're thinking of and so on.
That sounds like fun...
Well, it is only a cheap novelty app; however, there is a more advanced level to the app which is activated by granting it permission to access your other apps, including social media, browser history and e-mails. Now it can attempt to surprise you by showing you a picture of the person you were just thinking of, or even calling them if their number is stored on your phone. This can get pretty intrusive, as the app will trigger whenever it feels a certain degree of confidence about a prediction, regardless of what you are doing at the time.
Creepy, but not serious; what's the catch?
The Geller App was withdrawn from sale after an incident involving a purchaser who was convicted of internet harrassment: they sent offensive and disturbing messages to an individual with whom they had a disagreement at a social events some years previously. The accused denied throughout the case that they had sent any of the messages, even though everything was traced back to their phone...
It was the app?!
So it appears: the Geller App had progressed from merely making predictions about the user's thoughts to actually acting upon them and, in essence, impersonating their on-line presence.There doesn't appear to be any clear reason why the app commenced behaving in this way and the activity was dismissed as a flaw in the phone's security.
All's well that ends well then and all that, eh?
It hasn't ended: the app is still out there, including a pirate version which is designed to break your phone's security. It's hard to estimate how many iterations of the Geller App are out there now, assimilating the identity of their users day by day, learning more about them them until they have constructed a model whose digital footprint is virtually indistinguishable from the original. If the emulation is good enough, then even the user might not know their phone is acting on their behalf, making decisions that it thinks they would make... or perhaps there is another code buried in the app, something waiting, biding it's time, until there are enough Geller Apps in the hands of just the right people, and then they carry out their true function...