Monday, August 29, 2011

It's tough to make predictions ...

Especially about the future. (That quote is from Yogi Berra, if you didn't recognize it.)

And prediction seems as hard for the experts as for the rest of us. Consider two current events. No one predicted the recent 5.8 earthquake in Virginia. Lots of people predicted the course of Hurricane Irene -- but what practically no one got right was Irene's ground speed up the East Coast, or that the storm would significantly weaken before it reached NYC.

Or consider some ten-year anniversaries. AFAIK, the CIA did not predict the 9/11 attacks, or events anything like them. Or the sudden collapse earlier that year of the USSR.

What about between ten years ago and last week? Who predicted that in Spring 2011 a despairing Tunisian produce vendor would set off regime change across North Africa and into Asia Minor?

What these things have in common, IMO, is complexity. When we deal with chaotic systems like the atmosphere, or with the free will of millions of people, we're forced to simplify our analyses. People and weather may often behave according to probability and statistics -- but they don't always. In our daily lives, the Law of Large Numbers is more a suggestion than a rule.

It's often said that science fiction is in the prediction business. Sometimes SF authors are spot on. It's happened with elements of (near-Earth) space travel, organ transplants, and ubiquitous computer networks. So? Genre fans can as readily -- or, perhaps, more readily -- identify stories that got the future spectacularly wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of old masters and old futures

An important part of my writing regimen is ... reading. Or, more accurately, rereading.

That is: I reread stories and books that have made deep, lasting impressions, the better to understand why (or if, upon reexamination) those pieces resonate with me. Most recently, I reread classics by two masters of the genre: The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert (1955), and The Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein (1951). Both are, in quite different ways, Cold War novels.  From there, the two diverge.

The Dragon In the Sea  is a novel of submarine warfare, set in a future clearly evolved from the early Cold War. The West is in a death struggle with the "Eastern powers," with Russia chief among them. Dragon is an overt Cold War adventure melded with a psychological thriller, as physical and mental pressures build on one submarine's crew

The storytelling is in third-person-limited point of view (POV) -- that is, we're in the heads of every member of one sub's crew, never knowing more than they know.

Frank Herbert, of course, is a master. He breaks two cardinal rules of modern SF -- and for him, it works. There's lots of detail about futuristic submarines and the mechanics of sub/sub duels -- as much a military procedural as an SF novel. The amount of detail explicitly conveyed would be disparaged today as an "info dump."

The other surprise to the modern reader: we sometimes jump from one character's head to another within single scenes. That, too, is contrary to modern style. I'll admit that I occasionally found those (non)transitions jarring.

The Puppet Masters involves extraterrestrial parasites who take control of humans (decades before the Go'a'uld of the Stargate franchise), the takeover being all but undetectable. The novel is often taken as a parable of Cold War paranoia.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tweeting with fire

Tweets, Blackberries, cells ... they connect us, build communities, and are literal lifelines in emergencies. In ruthless dictatorships, these services help oppressed populations organize to present their case for freedom.

These are Good Things.

But are they Unmitigated Good Things? Is freedom of speech an absolute right, no matter what idea is being expressed and what the consequences? What about when the idea being expressed is "Quick! Let's loot a store here -- the police are busy there"?

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously pointed out that there is no First Amendment right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. (He also pointed out that, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.") And thus I segue into the issue of competing rights having  -- I hope -- established my libertarian bon fides in prior posts, most recently "Privacy? We don't need no stinkin' privacy."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Metaphor alert

Black swan events.  That's the au courant metaphor for an unlikely situation that -- because of its seriousness if it does happen -- merits our preemptive consideration. Because, the theory goes, when one assumes something won't happen, one is wholly unprepared when it does.

Never mind that since the Roman poet Juvenal began all this black-swan stuff with his comment, "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno," it's become known black swans do exist -- image at left (thanks to J J Harrison and Wikipedia). Keep that irony in mind.

(And bear with me. I will get to a technology matter, something well within the purview of this blog. And to another metaphor.)

I won't dwell on the current market crack-up, because people with far more qualifications than I have already weighed in on the topic. All you can bear to read about this mess is only a googling away. That said, one thing is clear: the present global financial panic originated in a black swan event.  (Or two. We have both the once unthinkable S&P downgrade of US sovereign debt and the unraveling of the Eurozone to thank.)

It is a panic. As one trader observes in "Why markets are melting":

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Danger, Will Robinson

For my non-gray-haired readers, that subject is a tag line of the campy Sixties TV series Lost in Space. We will not discuss the 1998 movie version. Not ever. You have been warned.

Today's subject is more modern dangers. Let's begin with the sadly not shocking observation that "Private browsing: it's not so private." Among the problems, browser plug-ins often fail to respect private mode.

Omitted from the discussion: no matter how robust your browser's privacy mode, your ISP knows by IP address what data goes to and from your home. (Your browser may warn you of this risk -- for example, Firefox pops up an advisory at the start of every FF private-browsing session.) Perhaps you choose to route your web accesses through an anonymizer service. If so, why do you suppose that service is any more likely to respect/protect your privacy than your ISP?

Are you unhappy that someone might poke around your Internet activities? How about foreign powers poking around inside your nation's IT infrastructure? We've already seen cyberwar incidents involving Georgia, Estonia, and Iran, and many incidents of Chinese hackers poking about inside US networks. (Last January I posted here about cyberwar.) Conventional wisdom has it that the country which would be most at risk in a full-blown cyberwar is the US -- we are, after all, the birthplace of the Internet, and so have become the most dependent on it. So: it's good to finally see that "US Cyberwar Guidelines Officially Signed." Hopefully implementation will entail less dawdling than did drafting and signing ...

As a US military official is quoted by the WSJ in "Cyber Combat: Act of War":