Sunday, August 1, 2010

how to move Mount Fuji

Let's face it, Microsoft is not what you'd call a major innovator. The company was slow to figure out the internet, slow with a games console, slow with email, slow with search, slow with mapping, etc, etc... Why is it that a company with thousands of highly paid "creative" employees fails to see what is blindingly obvious to others? Well, in true Microsoft tradition, I proffer a late answer.

The company was renowned for its interview and selection process which often posed questions of the ilk "how long would it take to move Mount Fuji?" Fuji-san was suitably foreign object to test the mettle of the legions of passport-less wannabees. All of whom would be required to work out literally how to move a mountain, when the obvious solution would be "not long at all" or " less than a second". While Microsoft sought "creative minds" who could work out how many loads of rock and soil comprise the volcano, and how long it would take to move them, the simple solution requires no more than the shifting of a grain of Fuji material, whereupon the mountain will have physically moved, though virtually imperceptibly. Meanwhile much paper or mental arithmetic was being used up pointlessly to calculate the volume of the volcano. In fact, it wouldn't take much general knowledge to figure out that Fuji-san is moving all the while with seismic vibrations.

A similar question is "how would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?" How lame a question is that? A jet, scales??? The sort of answer the interviewers were seeking was along the lines of "move the plane onto an aircraft carrier, then work out the weight from the displacement..." This is nearly as practical for weighing a 747 as trying to use the kitchen scales, even if you had a handy aircraft carrier - but it is the answer. One is not allowed to use the internet, a library nor the phone - which is so gut-wrenchingly expedient - but one is expected to have a handy (clear) aircraft carrier...

QED - they are bonkers!!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

an infinite map

In The Book of Sand Borges describes an infernal volume whose pages change while the book is closed, "because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or end." In The Library of Babel he describes a “perhaps infinite” library of exponential proportions. On the Exactitude of Science describes the drafting and demise of a 1:1 map whose details minutely recorded the territory mapped, "the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire." And in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius he describes the creation of the world of Tlön - "the world will be Tlön." All more than 50 years ago.

Now, I can see no reason why it should not be possible to create a screen-based map of a world whose dimensions are not finite. Instead of using the existing terrestrial data and satellite/aerial photographic tiling techniques as in Google Earth/Maps, I propose a computer-generated system in which a core map is extended on-the-fly according to user "travel", and hence, given appropriate processor power and memory, could extend indefinitely.

Such an infinite map realises some intellectual challenges. As there are no edges to the map it must represent a map which is brimming with conundrums - a world which is essentially flat, as opposed to our near-spherical planet. Yes, maybe it could be a large spiral, or any another ribbon-based form, but both the mapping and the experience would be of flatness.

Not only can there be no meaningful cardinal points (there can be no poles on the flat surface), but there can be no longitude nor latitude, and conventional north-south orientation (way-upness) is meaningless. A new system is required for navigation and location.

The world referenced by the map could not support a circadian rhythm, nor seasons, nor lateral geographical zones as we know them. It would not have tides, nor gravity as we know it, nor the plate tectonics which shape our continents, nor the same volcanic and weather systems which shape our landscapes. Our terrestrial physical laws will not always apply. And unlike all current maps which are based on data culled in situ alongside photographic and satellite images, the infinite map would never have been visited or photographed. It is an accurate map of terra incognita, and a singular instance in which the territory is the map.

All would have to be synthesised - with all the magical possibilities that could bring - anyone could be an explorer.

Such a world, were it to exist, could have an infinite mass spread thinly over infinite space; and I have been told that time and distance would not be as we know them...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

turn around...

I don’t know when I first started looking the other way in the presence of places being photographed by everyone else. It has become the norm. Not consciously, not out of habit as such, it just happens. Contrarywise…

I’d taken a trip second trip to Nara while on business in Japan in 2007 – my first had been inundated, and while this had its own watery appeal, I wanted to revisit Tōdai-ji for the light I’d seen years earlier.

The Tōdai-ji site is famed for the Daibutsu-den Hall – the largest wooden building in the world, containing the largest bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha. A magnet for cameras, even though here size matters, and it actively prejudices meaningful images of size itself – both Buddha and Hall are too up there to make any photographic sense - everything gets sqaushed.

Anyway, I’d arrived at the top of the steps to the Great Hall, surrounded by a throng of cameras, when I turned around and saw this space, inhabited by an acolyte and her shadow… And I'm not a people photographer. OK, it's voyeuristic, but I think you can see where I was heading.

But I had first visited Nara with a close friend back in 2003. Then we took pathways that first lead away from the Great Hall, haunted by eerily whistling deer, then slowly meandered back to meet the crowds, passing more humble shrines, some, seemingly so ancient, they were now just scrapes in the ground. We came across a shrine decked with votive papers - a man and two young boys approached, he bowed, then clapped his hands to wake whatever deity resided there. He bowed again, as did the boys, his lips moved silently, he bowed again as we had discovered an impeccable shrine on the other side of the path.

So I suppose the moral of the story is firstly, look the other way; and secondly, take the other path. This seems appropriately Buddhist...

A magical opportunity awaits you as you leave the Great Hall - you can sponsor a roof tile (constantly needed for renovation) with a personal message. Which I did...

Nara is easily accessible by train from Ōsaka and Kyōto. It is well signposted in English...

Friday, January 15, 2010

scripta manet verba volat (post in progress)

This aphorism has come to mean, what is written remains, what is spoken flies away. It seems quite logical for us to endow the written, printed or carved word with a permanence inherently absent from the spoken (unrecorded) word, but for many centuries after the development of written text the reverse was true. According to Alberto Manguel*, the written word was mutely locked while the spoken word could purposefully take off and fly.

This raised some questions for me.

(1) A character, say an "a", carved in stone or printed on paper using movable type is both a discrete entity, and one which has duration in the sense that it will remain an "a" so long as neither it nor its substrate suffers any damage. The same character "a" rendered black on a screen is not a discrete entity in the sense that it is made up of dots of no/little light, it is flickering on/off (is this latter an accurate description or is it more a case of a sort of throbbing?), and it is only rendered visible by the persistence of vision. So the question is - does the screen "a" have any physical presence/existence in the same way that the stone/paper "a" does, ignoring quantum vagueries? Would the screen "a" better be described as having a variable "state"?

(2) The character "a" when stored digitally is stored as binary code, and thus cannot be said to have any existence as an "a" as such? Can the storage itself can better be described as a (variable) "state" rather than anything physical such as the physical state of the carved "a"?

*A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel, 1996
(image is a Sumerian limestone tablet, c2450 BCE)