Editorial: Where was I?

Editorial: Where was I?

By Frances Buontempo

Overload, 23(126):2-3, April 2015

Space and time are relative. Frances Buontempo wonders whether this will wash as an excuse for another lack of editorial.

Previously we almost wandered into the religious realm, while considering fear, uncertainty and doubt [FUD] . If we were to bring things round to a more scientific perspective, we might find relativity leaves us doubting where, or when, we actually are, though I am getting ahead of myself. I realise I should bring things back on track and finally embark on an editorial but what with one thing and another I have been distracted yet again. Firstly, though perhaps less significantly, I have started a new job so am in the process of learning various new TLAs, eTLAs and TLs.1 Secondly, I have been drawn by a recurring theme of late around telepresence, perhaps the ultimate spooky action at a distance. Having just finished The peripheral by William Gibson [Gibson] , which concerns people remotely operating various machines, from ‘peripherals’ which seem to be human sized dolls designed for such purposes, through homunculi to a ‘wheelie-boy’ which is a smart-phone on wheels. These allow people to interact across space, and being a sci-fi book, across time as well. For many years it has been possible to use a telephone to speak to someone a great distance away and given newer technologies like video-phones, a move towards a physical remote-presence seems like the next big thing.

I recently watched Kraftwerk: Pop Art [Kraftwerk] , which fed into this train of thought. For quite a long time now, photo-shoots have used their robots instead of the band members. When performing, these robots frequently take up residence on stage playing the instruments instead of the people. This may seem odd, but clearly allows the music to continue, and to an extent, the band to continue performing long after the initial people are gone – a form of time travel. Other bands don’t physically exist, for example The Gorillaz spring to mind [Gorillaz]. The audience is still at the gig even if the band physically are not. And flipping it around, I own DVDs of shows which I can then watch at any time, without being at the actual venue and this can almost feel like having engaged with the experience to an extent. Perhaps one day I will be able to operate a mini-drone to remotely experience a concert. It does not always matter exactly where or when you are.

It has been possible to operate a physical device remotely for some time now. More recent examples include surgery and surgical simulators with haptic feedback [LSRO] , bomb disposal and fire-fighting robots [SAFFiR ] and unmanned space-crafts. Some of these operate in real time, and others are more fire and forget. Simpler exemplars could be argued to include a telephone or a television, perhaps via a remote control. Again, spooky action at a distance. If haptics allow you to feel something that is very far away or even virtual, what other ‘tele’-types are possible? Telesmell? Telesthesia? Telemetry? Teleportation? How far can this remote presence go? Would it be socially acceptable? It may be frowned upon to dial into a team’s daily scrum meeting, but sometimes a team is distributed across the globe, so it is sensible to do this. What if I sent in a mini-me robot or wheelie-boy to a meeting instead of actually turning up? Is that different to sending a secretary? Could the whole team ‘meet’ in a virtual reality world to discuss things? Would this be easier than a phone meeting? Do you need to interview a candidate face to face? Could you get married via a phone conference? New technologies bring about new social norms, where the previously unthinkable becomes par for the course.

Many people in the industry work from home for a large percentage of time nowadays, while others, perhaps in a business facing role, do so almost never. Some people prefer to communicate directly, while others will prefer emails or chat rooms. It will always be context dependant. If someone is demonstrating a new API, I like to have some code snippets in an email to refer back to rather than trying to frantically scribble notes and listen at the same time. The method of communication can and must depend on the circumstances. Having wondered if everyone needs to be physically ‘there’ begs the question, where is ‘there’ anyway. How many times have you looked round a meeting to see people staring at their smart phones? If someone, say a politician, is physically present at a meeting, but seemingly engaged in a game, say Candy Crush Saga [ Mills ], at least in one sense they are not really at the meeting but elsewhere. If I am at my desk on my PC but remoted to another machine, where am I? If I log on as someone else, who am I? Of course, various machines will answer ‘whoami’ but where am I is clearly a harder question. If the machine I remote to is a virtual machine, am I in the ‘Matrix’ – some form of non-physical reality? And yet my body is still at my desk. I am in two places at once.

Almost everyone has bemoaned the impossibility of actually being in two places at once, even though we have all plainly touched on this possibility without taking the full Candy Crush leap. Suppose for a moment I could clone myself and genuinely be in two places at once. Then I would have had the time to write Overload a proper editorial. Whatever your reason for needing to be in two places at once, you might feel the need to rendezvous with yourself at some point in space and time to synchronise. This presupposes the clone is really a deep copy. A shallow copy would rather defeat the purpose. The confusion of two individuals being the same, identically, and in no way different, presumably being in the same place at the same time, goes beyond the horror of memory leaks or double deletes and breaks the laws of physics. Without harmonising or re-integrating between your many selves, at least one of you would in some sense cease to be you. Would the synchronisation require a lock of time or reality? That may prove tricky to implement. Even if it were possible, time could pass while catching up with yourself, so it isn’t immediately apparent that cloning yourself would be the time-saver we hoped for. As with many applications that start life single-threaded, any attempt to save time by introducing some concurrency may actually slow things down, especially if you are using shared memory. A much simpler alternative is to delegate the editorial writing, or whatever tasks you are currently avoiding, to someone else and just hope for the best.

Even if we keep things simple and try to just be in one place at one time, things may not be straightforward. I mentioned relativity earlier. Though we may feel we are taking things slowly and methodically, going nowhere near the speed of light, precision regarding when and where we are often matters. I saw a recent plea on Twitter to retweet a post by 10pm in order to be in with a chance to win a book. First, I needed to know by 10pm on which day, and furthermore, I needed to know which time-zone. Not everyone is in the same place as you. Midday does not mean the same time to everyone. Neither does early in the morning, though questions of sleep-wake homeostasis and circadian biological clocks are beyond the scope of my current meanderings. How long I have before 10pm is another matter for discussion. Special relativity tells us about time dilation and length contraction, “ A clock in a moving frame will be seen to be running slow, or ‘dilated’ [Hyperphysics ] Perhaps this is why deadlines don’t seem so close until you are right on top of them. This might not be the best excuse to give your manager for being late with a project, so use judiciously.

Where was I? Without duplicating myself, even with an ersatz, phony, proxy other to do my dirty work for me, and attempting to slow down and just single task, I still might not achieve everything I set out to do. I can be self-reflective though. It is useful to keep notes to see how well I’m doing, or my team is doing. For those of a geek bent, there are various ways of automatically keeping track of things. If your code-base isn’t terabad, then you might have it running on a continuous integration box allowing you to perform some software archaeology [TICOSA ]. You can graph the build times, quickly spot churn in various code modules, notice early if tests slow down or speed up, glance at a burn-down chart, or see the team is giving 120%.2 Beyond the day-job, technology can be used to track all kinds of things. Various apps exist for tracking your phone in case you lose it. I personally need something which keeps track of where I put my notes, but that might just mean I need to be better organised. The phone tracking apps have recently moved up a notch, with ‘spy apps’ hitting the headlines [Spy apps ]. The premise appears to be that the teens spend so much of the time on their smartphones, communicating with their friends and strangers on various forums and the like, that parents can take an interest by tracking exactly what they have been up to. Furthermore some of these applications claim to allow parents to track exactly where the children are. Without having delved into the details of the technology I suspect the apps will potentially tell parents exactly where the smartphone in question is, which may not be the same thing. This may require some form of tracking device implant, which brings to mind various stories regarding Kevin ‘Captain Cyborg’ Warwick:

Warwick also surgically implanted a trivial chip in his arm, which allowed sensors to detect his presence and do things like turn on lights and open doors, then romped about in the media explaining gravely that he was now a cyborg: ‘Being a human was OK,’ he said. ‘But being a cyborg has a lot more to offer.’ Bravo. It was never clear why he couldn’t just carry the chip in his pocket. [ BadScience ]

To me it is self-evident. The door would then open for anyone who borrowed his jacket. Alternatively, if he left his jacket at lunch he wouldn’t be able to get back in again. If you instrument something or someone to see where it is and what it’s up to, make sure you are measuring the right thing.

Has this diversion allowed me to clarify my thoughts and get myself on track? Almost certainly not. It has made me less concerned about figuring out where I am and what time it is. There’s nothing like taking your watch off on holiday and just walking round an unknown town to see what happens. Getting lost can be a fruitful journey of discovery. We have all heard various myths and legends of people heading into the desert to mediate or find themselves. Being a bit vague is sometimes ok. Now if only I could remember where my smart-phone is. Let’s ring it from the landline and see if that helps.


[BadScience] http://www.badscience.net/2004/04/the-return-of-captain-cyborg/

[FUD] ‘FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt’, Frances Buontempo Overload 125, Feb 2015

[Gibson] The Peripheral Sep 2014, Putnam.

[Gorillaz] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorillaz

[Hyperphysics] http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/relativ/tdil.html

[Kraftwerk] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3262308/

[LSRO] http://lsro.epfl.ch/simulators ‘Surgical simulators with haptic feedback – training of minimally invasive surgery’

[Mills] Nigel Mills, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30375609

[SAFFiR] Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot http://www.livescience.com/49719-humanoid-robot-fights-fires.html

[Spy apps] for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30930512

[TICOSA] http://ticosa.org/

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