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Burn The Programmer!

This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

I've always had a problem with Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".

This may have something to do with my career for a long time involving both magic and technology. Magic's a perennial fiction obsession of mine, and my media of choice have always been highly technological.

Most recently, I just released Left-Hand Path. It's a Virtual Reality game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive - obviously fairly technological - whose central conceit is that in it, you learn the skills to cast spells. And I don't just mean you select spells from a spellbook and then press a button: I mean you have to learn the gestures necessary to create the magic, and on occasion go through a complex system of ritual magic to create the effects you desire, flipping through your grimoire to remember exactly how you summon your ancient powers.

Now, all that makes for a great game. There's a sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the powers of magic to your advantage and remember how to cast the "Vis" spell as something nasty is closing on you. There's a sense of discovery as you learn more about the world, the way magic works, and find powerful new spells. And there's a sense of pant-crapping terror as you realise that the things your new ritual summons to eat your foes will cheerfully eat you as well.

(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")

Now, none of that description of magic sounds very much like the technology I use in 2017.

I don't have to imprecate dark and terrible forces in order to use my PS4, unless you count Sony's latest privacy policy. My lovely new iPad is famously intuitive, not a quality one would ascribe to The Lesser Key Of Solomon.


And this is a big but. (I cannot lie.)

None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use. That's not so much the case for the other technology I interact with.

And I think that distinction - and the points where Clarke's Third Law does still apply - may explain a lot about why technologists are increasingly becoming hated in many circles.

Speak friend().init and enter

Magic is arcane - in the original meaning of the world. It's occult - again, in the original meaning of the world. It's difficult, dangerous, and often quite impractical despite its theoretical incredible power.

...Ever tried to set up a Sendmail server?

The technology that we deal with as technologists absolutely obeys Clarke's Third Law. Indeed, I've often wondered quite how much Charlie's Laundry Files magic was inspired by the fact he had a career before "Novelist" writing PERL. I've occasionally wondered if inscribing a pentagram and blood sacrifice would be more effective in ranking a site on Google than the traditional approaches. I've made myself physically ill whilst creating other worlds in the first generation of VR.

Sounds like magic to me. Indeed, I've read multiple books where the wizard protagonist suffers a severe "magic hangover" after overextending his powers, and it sounds a lot like what I experienced after finally getting Minecraft to work on my Oculus DK1.

(Side note: on quality VR platforms, those being Oculus and Vive, the vomiting thing is mostly solved by now. Don't fear the Great God Huey if you're thinking of trying those.)

I mean, does this look like some magical incantation stuff to you?

(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])(?:(?:(?:[^()<>@,;:\".[] \000-\031]+(?:(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t] )+|\Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:\".[]]))|"(?:[^\"\r\]|\.|(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t]))"(?:(?: \r\n)?[ \t]))(?:.(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])(?:[^()<>@,;:\".[] \000-\031]+(?:(?:( ?:\r\n)?[ \t])+|\Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:\".[]]))|"(?:[^\"\r\]|\.|(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t]))"(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])))@(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])(?:[^()<>@,;:\".[] \000-\0 31]+(?:(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])+|\Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:\".[]]))|[([^[]\r\]|\.)*\ ](?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t]))(?:.(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])(?:[^()<>@,;:\".[] \000-\031]+ (?:(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])+|\Z|(?=[["()<>@,;:\".[]]))|[([^[]\r\]|\.)](?: (?:\r\n)?[ \t])))|(?:[^()<>@,;:\".[] \000-\031]+(?:(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])+|\Z |(?=[["()<>@,;:\".[]]))|"(?:[^\"\r\]|\.|(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t]))"(?:(?:\r\n)

Ask the non-technologist in your life. Or just carve it on a stone tablet and leave it somewhere around Skara Brae for archaeologists to get excited about.

Klaatu barada MongoDB

So there's this class of people in the world who can do incredible things - like, say, teaching a car to drive itself. Or indeed crafting a literal Magician's Broom to clean their towers - I mean, apartments.

And they do this by immersing themselves in obscure, difficult learning that on the face of it makes no sense to the average person.

They don't need large teams of people or masses of wealth to do these things. In fact, if one of them locks themselves up in their tower, they're likely to come out in 10 years having created an entire world for themselves as a plaything.

They can cause harm to people tens of thousands of miles away using weirdly-named incantations - like "WannaCry".

They summon and control alien entities called "AIs". They don't always perfectly control those entities.

And they can amass unimaginable wealth and power by using these arcane skills.

What happens next?

Well, it's fairly clear from a cursory read over fantasy literature - and it's fresh in my mind as humans' reactions to magic users are also a key plot-point of Left-Hand Path.

They're either going to get worshipped as gods - or they get burned as a witch.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Programmer To Live

Obviously there are plenty of other reasons why society at large might be getting a bit skeptical of the tech giants, Silicon Valley, and so on. There's the wealth disparity. The diversity culture. The threat of strong AI. And more.

But I can't help but feel, looking at a lot of the media pushback at the moment, that a lot of it is straight-up fantasy novel 101 "Reactions To Wizardry".

And it's particularly ironic because most of the people reacting are surrounded by the same wizardry. They've got daemons in their phones. They're organising using services that have been carefully massaged to not require "magic" to use. Their cars and their TVs and their fridges all contain little bits of complex, arcane magic that can only be understood by the "wizards".

Don't get confused with the real-world "witch hunts" here. Those witches didn't (probably) actually have magical powers. This is something else.

And as I watch 2017 unfold in all its craziness, I do start wondering whether the conversation should be less about robots, and more about straight-up magic. About a world which is increasingly splitting into those who can wield magic, those who can pay the magicians, and those who just use the things magic enables.

Because that's the interesting part: whilst Arthur C Clarke's maxim was true, and all advanced technology was arcane and difficult, these problems didn't occur. It's only now, as technology finally surpasses magic enough to eat society as a whole, rather than just the beardy guys in the towers studying eldrich tomes, that society as a whole notices the wizards in its midst.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just released an army of scuttling, gliding, limbless, bodiless eldrich horrors on the general population, and I've got to go see how they're reacting.

What do you think? Are programmers in danger of burning?


| Leave a comment

I don't think we're looking at a Butlerian Jihad any time soon - tech is useful, after all, and easily supports existing structures of power.

That said, there are also numerous examples of people catching hell for essentially "doing things powerful people don't understand, and are therefore frightened of" - see Aaron Swartz, for example.


It sounds especially mysterious if you mention that many of the sigils in your regex are in fact ancient ways of describing different characters that are entirely invisible.


I attribute the prevalance of occult metaphors in computing to the historical overlap between engineers working on the fringes of new tech and actual occultists, particularly during the twentieth century. Lots of discordians are also chaotes, and to the extent that hacker culture has a particularly discordian edge, it also has a magickal one.

The metaphors also are *appropriate*, and, more importantly, they *feel* appropriate. You learn sigil magick for the same reason that you learn shell scripting. Somebody who's comfortable with the elaborate almost-templated structures of idiomatic Java will also be comfortable with the elaborate and highly-structured rituals that characterize the western occult tradition as filtered through 19th century british trust-fund kids: fasting days, astrologically-determined time periods, costumes, rote recitation of bad poetry in constructed languages.

I don't think this ties in well with the reason people are suspicious of the tech industry. The people most suspicious of the tech industry are insiders who work there (like... well, a lot of the readers of this blog, myself included).

Tech's power isn't technical: we don't do anything more complicated than other industries that hold much less sway (like chemical engineering or structural engineering), and we require significantly less training than other industries that have very little cultural cachet (while doctors and lawyers have a place in the mythos, PAs, paralegals, and chartered accountants don't, and they go through twice as much schooling). On top of that, the norm is not wizardry: most people with the title of "software engineer" have less competence in their field than an average plumber or auto mechanic has in theirs. People aren't protesting in front of auto repair shops. Tech's power is monetary -- a result of inflated salaries -- and actual technical prowess is irrelevant, because the people who have the most cultural power have relatively little actual technical prowess.

(Give a plumber 100k a year to read reddit and do half an hour of real work a week and then tell him that landing that job makes him intelligent, and he's going to put himself in an unfortunate social position as well.)


There's a reason the HEXEN tarot feels so appropriate.


Funny, about a month ago, I tackled this from the other end in my blog entry, where I reworked the idea of magic coming back after the collapse of civilization.

It turns out this isn't a stupid idea. The key thing here is that literacy, and especially literature with a printing press and huge libraries, works very differently than a system where books are few, hand-written, or non-existent, and human memory is the primary information storage.

In the latter case, handwritten codices aren't there exactly to store information, but also as mnemonic devices. If you're going to read only a few books in your life, you're likely to memorize them, and having all that crazy artwork on each page also helps you remember that page and the words it contains.

Thing is, humans have good memories for things like spatial detail, images, songs, dances, bad jokes, and the like. We're not very good at rote memorizing long strings of text or catalogs. Over the ages, people have realized that one of the good ways of storing useful information is by what the Europeans called the Memory Palace or the Method of Loci. The idea is to store things, like speeches, depositions, laundry lists, or whatever, by turning them into images that you imagine in specific places in your mind. The classic technique is to populate your memory of your childhood home with images. Furthermore, the images have to be memorable. Many men use images of supermodels or sexy women (a recommendation that, incidentally, goes back to a Medieval monk), others use monsters. Whatever. If you're trying to remember to by yogurt and pickles at the store, and you remember it by visualizing Heidi Klum naked in a vat of yogurt by the front door of your house and [Insert model} doing [insert memorable action] with [your favorite pickle brand] just inside that house, I guarantee you'll remember to get yogurt and pickles the next time you're at the store.

However, the Method of Loci is tens of thousands of years older than Rome. For one thing, it's acknowledged by the aborigines that it's the basis for the Songline/Dreamtime systems of Australia. There, they encoded the information they needed to survive as images, rituals, dances, songs, etc. that were told at specific points in the landscape. As they traversed the landscape, when they came to these spots, they practiced the rituals, songs, dances, etc. that were appropriate to the spot, refreshed their memories for what they needed to know, and preserved and passed on the knowledge. There's good evidence that these ritualized methods have preserved knowledge for 50-100 years in individuals' brains, and there are suggestions that it preserved geographic information for about 10,000 years or more (there are stories about coastal features that have since disappeared under water, and they were confirmed by underwater survey).

A lot of what makes knowledge memorable looks like magical ritual, especially to ye olde tyme ethnographers (looking at you, Malinowski), and indeed, anthropologists since the 1970s have been working through the notion that the break between magic and science isn't about irrationality to rationality, it's about switching from a predominantly oral society to a predominantly literate society, with magic associated with memory and science associated with book learning.

You can learn more in Lynne Kelly's Memory Code or Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, if you're one of the weirdos like me who's interested in this sort of thing. So to answer the short question, yes, if the infrastructure surrounding literacy (the internet, computers, libraries, printing presses, paper, ink, etc.) falls apart due to societal collapse, we'd better hope that there are some well-read enchanters out there who can save the critical information our species needs to survive in rituals that our brain-addled descendants can learn fast enough for them to survive. That's everything from sanitation and first aid to how to grow every crop, how to find and clean water, where to go as the climate keeps changing, the old and new politics that define friends and foes, and so forth. All of that can be turned into purely oral knowledge, if people are clever enough to ritualize it in memorable ways.

But wait, there's more. Two more things. One is that the culture of the memory palaces started to break down in Renaissance Europe as the printing press took over. It was no longer necessary to memorize books. As people stopped having to learn the Method of Loci with their rhetoric classes because books were increasingly cheap, the Method was picked up by none other than the Renaissance magicians, who used memory palaces as a basis for their magic, on the usual promise of such systems to help people self-improve, get to heaven, command eldritch powers, and so forth (how else would you make money through selling magic in a literate society?).

The remnants of such systems populate our games to this day. I suspect a lot of what we nerds learned as AD&D monsters were originally medieval mnemonic devices, less designed for reality than for memorability. For example, a manticore by your front door holding your favorite brand of pickles in its maw is as memorable as Heidi Klum naked doing the same thing. At least if you find manticores more memorable than Heidi Klum.

Nowadays, the Method of Loci and its kin are mostly used by people doing memory contests and people writing self-help books to help you improve your memory, but these are modern vestiges of a much older system. Still, if you were pressed, I suspect you could use the monsters out of your childhood RPGs, stash them in dungeons of your imagination, and use them to store huge lists of facts, if you needed to. That's one way to re-enchant the world.

Speaking of RPGs, there's also the issue of magic items, which I'm beginning to suspect were as much mnemonic devices as wish fulfillment toys. The classic memory palace method uses landscapes in which to stash images that key to information. However, there are also a wide variety of mnemonic devices that do the same thing on a smaller scale. These range anywhere from totem poles to churingas, khipus, and even Stonehenge (this was Lynne Kelly's doctoral thesis), but basically, the idea is to use an object with abstract patterns on it as a miniature landscape on which to hang your images that store information. If, like me, you've got a loving memory of the Dungeon Master's Manual and its long list of magic items, I think you can see where this is going. Yes, you can use staffs, rods, amulets, rings, scrolls, and so on as mnemonic devices, especially coupled with poems, songs, dances, and other ritual that's easier to remember than, say, the seasonal progression of pests on the crops your family now depends on. The trick is to give the devices a bunch of eye-catching, often abstract patterns (search on lukasa or aboriginal paintings for an idea of how it works), and use the patterns as the memory palace in which stuff gets memorized.

Long, rambling answer, but I'm beginning to realize the history of magic is a strange link in an ancient way of literally knowing stuff. If we're not careful now, we might need that magic again in a hurry. Also, it means that you can combine your favorite magic RPGs with your disaster prepping in new, fun, and useful ways. I guess the question is, what can you remember with your new +5 vorpal sword?


Aye programmers are in grave peril. As things become easier those who can handle the complex underpinnings will become more valuable. Think Being a 1960's nuclear weapons specialist. As more easy coding layers get piled on top of more complex bases fewer wizards will come to be. So the danger sir, is from attrition.


I don't have any specific replies to make here, but just want to say that I'm loving the comments! Fascinating stuff.


I tend to think that magic IS science, except for differences in our cultural baggage and that minor detail of whether or not it works.

If magic worked, and our culture believed it worked, I think we would treat it exactly the same way as science: a few experts would study the foundations in depth and formulate systematic theories about how it works, they would write textbooks and become lecturers to teach younger people how to do it, and then those people would go out and craft mighty skyscrapers for the wealthy and/or bite-size consumer goods & services for the mass market.

Lots of fiction likes to throw around lines about how magic is not an exact science, because otherwise it would BE science! But I don't see what would stop an advanced civilization with access to the scientific method from rapidly turning it into an exact science. If it truly weren't amenable to systematization, we couldn't have grimoires (textbooks) and artifacts (machines) and rituals (repeatable experiments) and wizards (scholars), so you probably wouldn't be referring to it as "magic" in the first place.

C.S. Lewis once said that magic and science were twins: one was strong and thrived, and the other was weak and died, but they started out twins.


...Ever tried to set up a Sendmail server?


At least I think I did. I erased the experience from my memory in order to avoid permanent SAN penalty.


Part of the problem is that anthropologists and ethnographers didn't get it, and the other part of the problem is that the colonized people often didn't do much to help the imperial ethnographers who were asking probing questions about their knowledge.

To unpack that statement, a lot of technical knowledge was couched in formal, often archaic language, and used in a ritual context to make sure it was accurately transmitted. For example, the formula for an herbal treatment of a particular malady might be encoded into a song to help the doctor remember it, or the rules for which corn to plant where might be encoded as a fairy story about where the corn maidens liked to live.

The anthropologists watched and heard this stuff, didn't really understand what was going on, and called it magic. Mnemonic devices were (and still are) called ritual devices. This makes sense, since in our context, religion is divorced from science. You wouldn't dream of a minister in a pulpit praying out the instructions for where to plant what variety of corn, but that's what was going on in various villages until recently.

Interestingly, magic gets analyzed down to a few actions, then it's demonstrated that it doesn't work, then the people who are claimed to only practice that are branded as delusional and stupid. This is a perfect story for why these people need to be conquered, forcibly re-educated in our way of literate life, and made into little copies of us that somehow simultaneously keep their own culture so that we won't guilty about conquering them.

On the flip side, those who have tried back-to-the-land living usually find out it's really freaking hard to do, and there's a tremendous amount to learn before you can even be barely successful (let alone living by hunting and gathering). Yet we somehow think that the people that successfully live these hard lives are ignorant, chaining their lives to ignorant mumbo-jumbo, because they "believed in magic" that "didn't work." Do you see the contradiction?

I'm not saying that waving a wand and saying an incantation works. That's a modern fantasy of magic. The real "magic" is figuring out how to use something that looks like this bead-covered board to help you remember the 82 families and 408 species of birds found in the state of Victoria, as its maker, Lynne Kelly is doing as one of her memory experiments. The device she's made, her version of an African lukasa, was used to run the Kingdom of Luba in eastern Zaire until not very long ago. They didn't have writing, but they had a lot of people trained to memorize things using lukasa and other methods, and apparently that worked well enough. Think of that bead-covered board as an amulet, and you'll start to get what's I'm talking about.


"If magic worked, and our culture believed it worked, I think we would treat it exactly the same way as science"

Isn't that what we did do back before we developed dependable methods of telling whether something worked or not? Willow bark as a febrifuge because of its salicylate content, and some plant or other as Viagra because it looked like a cock, were part of the same body of knowledge. That we now call one science and one magic is simply because we have now figured out that those two categories exist and how to tell them apart. If magic did work the basis on which we can distinguish them would disappear.


... Hmm. James Nicoll had an idea a while back (for a superhero setting) that I think would allow you to have fully understood and systematized working magic be distinguishable from science.

Reformulating it a tad: Magic are those arts that cannot be imbued into physical artefacts. There is no such thing as a magic sword, or an enchanted rings, there are only magi. Study hard enough - the equivalent of a bachelor, and you can fly. Study other magics harder still, and you can heal with a touch.

This should be perfectly compatible with a modern setting, while still feeling magical, no? Well functioning educational systems turn out citizens with a knack or three, and a solid grounding, but a mage is a specialist.


,,, Or just someone clever and quite obsessive. - For example, if the payoff is the freedom of the skies, I think a fair few highschoolers would study a *lot* of math and meditative disciplines, much to the dismay of the people responsible for flight path control.


I hope you've read Rick Cook's _Wizard's Bane_, which covers more or less exactly this from the opposite angle: programming might look like spells but at least it's passing systematic, and that's more than you can say for most fantasy wizards...


(?:(?:\r\n)?[ \t])(?:(?:(?:[^()>@,;:\".[] ...

I recall reading (well, trying to) a draft spec for some secure computing system/something (IIRC; a few decades ago) that had a couple of pages of a long nested parenthetical expression.
Got frustrated, and counted left-bananas and right-bananas, and found that it was short two right-bananas. Was told not to pay attention to it; it was just an example. Which it surely was; those missing right bananas would have broken it.

Typed-on-the-fly bash[1] one-liners would be analogous to improvisational magic.
[1] Or worse(better?), APL or descendant language, or dense obtuse Perl, or [favorite dense write-only language]. ("Ooops")


I'm liking your pre-printing press, pre-literate cultural memory concepts.

For about the past year I've been digging very heavily into notions of media, information, propogation, and the cultural changes that emerge on account of them.

I'd first run across Elisabeth Eisenstein and her The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. That lead to a closer assessment of McLuhan and his The Gutenberg Galaxy (I'd previously largely known of The Medium is the Message). I've been going forward and back in media studies and philosophy from there: Robert McChesney, Chomsky, Mencken, Lippmann, de Bon, MacCay, and others.

Among the more interesting observers are those at the cusp between two eras. Socrates bridged the preliterate/postliterate era, and lamented the effect writing would have on memory. He's among the first we know of as you somewhat needed writing to keep records of this.

The Catholic Inquisition can be thought of as an attempt to retain an ideological orthodoxy in the face of ongoing divergence, and ultimately losing that fight, what with the printing press, Martin Luther, the vernacular Bible, and science.

I'm finding the role of religion in empires fascinating -- and not just Christianity. Every major pre-industrial empire save the Mongols had a single established religion (Rome, Persia, India, China, Byzantine, Ottoman, Spanish, British, ...), and I suspect trust and predictability had a great deal to do with this. Durkheim and Weber
focus on this extensively.

It also strikes me that, at a social scale, increased communications capabilities reduce overall trust, both through overt surveillance, and through reduced reliance on trust. (This is a hypothesis, I may well be wrong.)

I'm also exploring the works of Joanne Yates and James Beniger on the evolution of commercial correspondence. Both have histories on this topic, and, I mean it, Yates' treatment of the interoffice memorandum as a communications device is fascinating. (It's also interesting to see how our current email headers and metadata were pressaged, including, Mutt users rejoice, the emergence of "In reply to" as pre-dating "From", "To", and "Subject" among those metadata.

Then there's libraries, index cards, and bibliographic records, but I'll save that for later.


See also The Broken Crescent, by S. Andrew Swann. Much grimmer than Cook, but a more in-depth discussion of the magic system.


But wait, there's more. Two more things. One is that the culture of the memory palaces started to break down in Renaissance Europe as the printing press took over. It was no longer necessary to memorize books.

This reminds me most fondly of my first introduction to the concept of the Memory Palace: In his wonderful novel Little, Big, John Crowley called it an "Artificial Memory". There's an excellent recap/quote of his description here; the glorious and, ahem, memorable bit is the finish:

"The whole process was immensely complicated and tedious and was for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet."


I think the big break between magic and science & technology started with the printing press and its ability to disseminate results more widely. Humans have always had expertise and schools and knowledge, but they were limited in range and duration. Even after writing was developed, libraries were small and circulation limited. Once it was possible to build a larger scientific community things began to change.

By the 17th century the gap was growing, as people began to understand that there were invisible forces that could be predicted and manipulated, e.g. gravity, electric charge, magnetism. These were a lot like magic and understanding them was similar to understanding magic, except that it was easier to keep track of what worked and what didn't. The 19th century saw a big jump in the gap with electromagnetism coming into common use, breakthroughs in chemistry, and the discovery of radio waves and X rays. We were all materialists by then.

I worked in software, so I understand how the analogy with magic was developed. Software involves producing sequences of symbols, so it resembles a certain type of magic, one involving incantations. If you actually look at the history of magic, it used to involve a lot more doing. Locate your materials, prepare and mix them in certain ways, bury them or burn them and so on. Maybe there would be an incantation at one point or another, but the older the magic, the more doing, the less saying.

Modern magic, particularly as it appears in modern fantasy literature is much more about sequences of symbols. In the old days, our skills were physical. Now, everyone is a symbol manipulator. Software people more so than most, but it pervades all of our technology. Car engines produce symbolic reports for auto mechanics. Thermostats require arcane coding sequences. Doctors need to crank out DX codes and duke it out with prescription writing systems. When was the last time you saw a delivery guy who wasn't toting a handheld?

Magic has often had the convention that magic was more powerful and better understood in the past, so research into magic usually involves looking up old sources or contacting ancient spirits. Only a handful of magicians use magical micro-sequencing and simulation to develop or optimize spells. I'm sure there are fantasy novels where the sorcerer can't wait for the next issue of Sorcery Angewandte to see what spells the next decade might hold.

Programming isn't quite as backward looking, but every modern incantation is run against something older. A programmer might consult a musty PDF manual, delve into Stack Exchange or even - gasp - read the source code to get past some obstacle. Even at the lowest level, there is the hardware manual with its arcana. Experiments can be useful, but the definitive answer is embedded in the past.

Of course, now and then, software does exactly what it is supposed to, and that is sort of magical in and of itself.


It's difficult to generalize about magic , the term means a ton of different things to different cultures at different times

However the idea that ancient humans were simply too smart to believe in things that simply don't work and hence there must have been something uber clever going on is easily debunked. Modern humans also believe in plenty of things that don't work, from praying to their various gods to trickle down economics. Believing in fantasy is a defining trait of our species

Never underestimate our ability to delude ourselves


Along a similar theme, how quickly the internet turned into a lovecraftian horror :

I realised to my horror that I've been a professional programmer for more than 20 years, have literally developed on everything for the first home computers (BASIC home built for kit System 80, with bonus hazard points for home built monitor) through to compute shaders and game engines. It amazes me how productive we are today with stackoverflow, modern frameworks and open source projects, but it freaks me out how much I rely on cut and paste coding which I used to ridicule.

My mantra to my grads had always been, if you don't understand why it started working you're a magician, not an engineer. Break it again, fix it again and describe to the team why the fix does what it does, and apply this understanding to build the correct solution. But I feel that the systems we build are now getting so complex we're starting to come to the end being a valid approach (why does enabling spread spectrum on my CPU cause that particular network card to stop responding to ARP broadcasts after a couple of hours? I WILL NEVER KNOW).

It's now become, get good key art and throw together well regarded ingredients (with a dash of your secret ingredient) to get something 80% reliable and good looking. If your project becomes a big enough success you get hired by the king, if not you get burnt as a witch.

It makes me understand the reasoning for organisations like Tesla which are trying to home grow more of their technology so that they bound their problem space and it becomes engineering again.


You're talking about things that are a lot more than 20 years old. But what's with cut and paste - are libraries too hard to use now?


Of course there is also AI demonology :

Summon the demon, carefully frame your command and let it loose. Best you be careful in defining the scope and nature of the problem you want to solve or you might find your universe drowned in paper clips :-p

Generative design freaks me out a little bit because it feels like algorithmic rivet popping, I can build in safety margins for the known unknowns, but the unknown unknowns?

I know the users really, really don't understand the nature of the beast. The people defining the rules are earth magicians (aka civil or mechanical engineers), the people who built the demon traps are applied computational magicians, while people who designed the algorithms are theoretical demonologists. Good for dildos, maybe not so good for bridge trusses?


It depends a lot on the library, have a look at the provider model for something like Microsoft Media Foundation, or god forbid QT with chromium. Simple old, well documented library with a single function hell yes, go nuts. Configure hardware supported HVEC decoding in UWP, this way lies madness.


I should also say, it's not that any particular library is hard to use, its that you will use it once, on a project which will last for a maximum of 3 months, and need to support IOS, Android and Windows (and maybe javascript version via LLVM). This will be the first (and maybe last time) you will ever touch any of these technologies, now pick a stack and get cracking. Oh, and don't forget security, we'd hate to be in the news.

Every time I look at a smart globe with app, I know this is how the project was run, and blow me away that they don't work pretty well most of the time, but nobody has the time to fully understand how all the bits that make that system are pulled together.

Rather than actually understanding how to configure mcrypt in PHP on ngix, you just take the answer with 4 upvotes than the one with 3 and move on to the next job on the storyboard.

This is where engineering turns into magic.


First of all, congratulations on a good looking game. I don't have a VR rig, but if I did I'd buy it.

That being said, the discussion on magic/ritual as a way of encoding knowledge is very interesting to me. I'll have some specific replies below - and might just try building a memory palace next time the boss tells me, "you need X certification in by May."


I've often contemplated the problems of setting up something like a monastery, where the technical and scientific accomplishments of our society could be preserved through what will certainly be a very dark age after the temperature tops out and the seas rise, and one of the worst problems is the question of how to preserve books, most of which aren't printed on acid-free paper, most of which aren't designed for preservation. Putting together the physical tool kit for light manufacturing is the easiest part of the problem - just add money...

Putting together a situation where you've preserved the "McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology" for 3-500 years is awesomely difficult. Selling the time to memorize it as useful in the sense of doing magic... that requires some contemplation.


That was a marvelous book. Maybe I should reread it. And then there was the mansion the family lived in, which was pretty much a memory palace as it stood.

In webcomics "The Mansion of E" is very interesting from that standpoint and of course Soon Ha Lee's work, where they'll annihilate societies which change their calendars, and the calendars encode what they can do technically is wonderful.

But gotta reread "Little Big."


Well, I'm jumping into that boat now, as I'm thinking about taking a test that, among other things, requires sight ID of 530 plant species. I can hack about 70% of them already, learned by the dark and devious methods of botanists, but I'm trying to figure out how to use a memory palace (or perhaps build something like a lukasa or just a mind map) or whether I just want to go hybrid and finish out the 6" of flash cards I'm already working on.

Anyway finding memory palaces are easy. If you want to learn the method, google "memory palace" or "Art of memory" and go to town. I'm half-joking about constructing D&D style dungeons full of monsters as memory palaces. In theory that would give you a method for constructing an infinite number of palaces, but there are simpler ways to do it. Some memory champions reportedly subscribe to architecture magazines, and use other people's show homes as memory palaces for their competitions. Whatever works.


" society at large might be getting a bit skeptical of the tech giants, Silicon Valley, and so on... ...a lot of it is straight-up fantasy novel 101 'Reactions To Wizardry'."

Is there some pushback against programmers out there? Because I haven't seen hide nor hair of it.

Push-back against gigantic corporations owning and abusing data-sets, and engaging in egregious tax evasion: yup, I've seen a fair bit of that. And rightly so.

Some concern about cyber-criminals: yup. But no more than about any other criminals. And probably less concern about cyber-criminals than there rationally should be, to be honest.


"I tend to think that magic IS science, except for differences in our cultural baggage and that minor detail of whether or not it works"

I think you're right.

The attempts to understand and use the hidden forces and characters of the world that worked we called "science". The attempts that didn't we called "magic". There really wasn't a great principled difference.

Newton spent more time working on alchemy than physics. He thought understanding the orbits of the planets very important - it means you could see exactly where the planets were when different important events in the Old Testament happened, which would help you understand the planet's astrological influences.

Galileo, on the other hand, reject the idea that celestial objects affected the earth the ways astrologers said. Galileo asserted that, despite superstition to the contrary, the orbit of the moon does not cause lunacy, or plague, or the tides.
(Lets just say that Galileo's "Discourse on the Tides" isn't a highlight of his career)

Magic, Science, same thing in 1600.


They don't need large teams of people or masses of wealth to do these things. In fact, if one of them locks themselves up in their tower, they're likely to come out in 10 years having created an entire world for themselves as a plaything.

Even among programmers, the people you describe are the exception, no matter how many of us would like to view it otherwise. Most of the stuff people will interact with day-to-day isn't created or maintained by a single programmer. As a matter of fact, almost nothing is, these days. When I went back to school to get a CompSci B.Sc.(in addition to my NeuroSci one) one of the things the dean told the assembled students was "learn to work as a team - we give you personal assignments early on but a lot of our advanced courses require group assignments because when you go to work in the industry this is how you will be working", and my current experience in the industry bears this out very well - i.e. a project I was on that, effectively, had no coordinator, floundered even though it included some very talented and experienced people.


Ordered bead-coverd board ...
Hmmm ... Quipu?
Which seem mostly to have been numeric, rather than "alphabetic" ... but wasn't a lot of cuneiform like that, as well ... accountancy before writing (!)


British not so much.
E.G. christian missionaries were forbidden to go to northern Nigeria .... bhuddism, hindu & islam were treated equally - see also the regimental dinner for the Russian "visitor" in "The Man who Was".
OTOH, Thuggee & Suttee got stamped on - hard.


How about repurposing a (rightly) little-used word: Copromancer.

It is particularly fitting for (say) tactical developers in banks whose primary toolkit is Excel and Visual Basic for Applications.

But you could totally use it for web developers, nine levels of opaque 'frameworks' above any recognisable HTML.


One of Pterry's residents of Lancre was a Research Witch, wasn't she? [ Magrat Garlick ]


And that is almost certainly how a "real" AI will emerge.
What happens if you specifiy an AI as the desired end & then input the parameters into Dreamcatcher or similar?


A copromancer is someone who does magic on or with SHIT.
See also "The Night-Blooming Saurian" by J Tiptree Jnr.


That was Nile's point.

Actually, I think this article has rather missed the point. Exactly WHY does magic have to be hard to use - as distinct from hard to create? That may be a modern assumption, but was and is not always the case (Moorcock's End of Time rins, for example, or magical armour and swords). And Clark's point was not about using technology, but creating it.

Whether or not the iPad is intuitive (and that is debatable), not even the top-level computer expert fully understands how modern software (or often even hardware) works. I have lost track of how many times I have shown other developers properties that completely baffle them, and that's even before I get started on the emergent properties of complex systems. In particular, as soon as you introduce asynchronism (including most parallelism), even the theory becomes a black art. MY code is relatively immune from such things because I know (and teach) how to avoid them, but I know damn well that it isn't going to be free of them if I have to tackle a task I cannot analyse rigorously.

I don't see a Butlerian jihad in the near future, but I have already seen signs of the persecution of private programmers. And remember that the persecution of 'magicians' was aimed at those that were not in the favours of TPTB, not the ones who were.


Reminds me of the first paragraphs of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, the first place I saw programming compared to magic. There's some sort of magical wizard people on the cover. I've always wondered why Sussman thought the comparison to magic should be the first thing discussed and on the cover. I thought maybe it was to excite the audience. I asked him one time why he thought SICP had such a devout following. He said, "I think it tells a good story."

The first few paragraphs:

We are about to study the idea of a computational process. Computational processes are abstract beings that inhabit computers. As they evolve, processes manipulate other abstract things called data. The evolution of a process is directed by a pattern of rules called a program. People create programs to direct processes. In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.

A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer's idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer's spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.

A computational process, in a correctly working computer, executes programs precisely and accurately. Thus, like the sorcerer's apprentice, novice programmers must learn to understand and to anticipate the consequences of their conjuring. Even small errors (usually called bugs or glitches) in programs can have complex and unanticipated consequences.

Fortunately, learning to program is considerably less dangerous than learning sorcery, because the spirits we deal with are conveniently contained in a secure way. Real-world programming, however, requires care, expertise, and wisdom. A small bug in a computer-aided design program, for example, can lead to the catastrophic collapse of an airplane or a dam or the self-destruction of an industrial robot.



Hugh noted: "None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use."

Among other things, because there's no "low terror mode".

Speaking as someone who's been using computers for close to 40 years, who's studied programming (just the basics), who's taught a great many people to use computers, and who's worked with engineers and programmers for most of my life:

I'd say that most of the technology we use today would be described by most of its users as "magic", and not in a good way. Most of us (even when we're technoliterate) have no idea how our tech works, and to use it, we're forced to invoke a series of arcane ritual gestures that bear little or no resemblance to the expected results -- and that sometimes produce strange and terrifying results if you unwittingly invoke them. As proof, I offer the list of keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft products -- and I say this as a Word power user who lives in Word for most of the week and who's literally written the book on some aspects of using Word. Microsoft is hardly alone in this.

The biggest problem with technology today is not the engineers and programmers who develop it. I've worked with and been friends with enough of them to know that their hearts are in the right place. I blame the product managers and marketers who are strapped to the treadmill of "pump out upgrades to pump up products, and forget about the bugs -- people expect and accept bugs". They don't give product developers much time or support to do their job right. (cough cough Internet of things cough cough)

A secondary, but non-trivial, problem is that we're locked into a design mindset from the 1960s. We design products around the product's features, as imposed by the product managers and marketers, rather than designing them based on the needs of the users. We design them based on personal prejudices (cough cough Apple design cough cough) rather than based on good UX research. As an example, I offer my iPad, which offers a brilliant (for my aging eyes) pinch to zoom feature that is only available in some apps and some contexts rather than universally. My iPad also will not let me delete old photos to make room for new ones, offering the useful error message that I can do this from my home computer (which, coincidentally, I didn't happen to bring to Japan during my vacation). NO!!! The correct design response is "I'll happily delete those photos now, and we can figure out how to reconcile them with your backups when you get back home".

To be fair, we users encourage this behavior by constantly demanding new features and not demanding that product developers make them work well before we buy them. Maybe if we all skipped the next Microsoft or Apple upgrade, with a polite little note to the aforementioned that we'll buy/upgrade to their new versions when they've fixed all the known and unpatched bugs that have accumulated from the last 10 versions.


This is certainly not the first time that programming and software engineering in general has been compared to magic, it's almost an cliche joke in the tech industry that we're effectively performing black magic, adding bizarre lines of code to somehow make our program compile or function as expected. As these technologies grow more complex, and the layers of abstraction pile up, it's definitely true that to each individual programmer or engineer the beast is starting to become rather unfathomable. The expected result of necessary specialization due to the complexity of the tasks involved.

However, I would push slightly back against the idea that this "magical" property is restricted to tech only. Legal matters, medical matters, aerospace engineering, and biochem all are highly complex knowledge fields that have grown so vast that there is no hope that a single human being can comprehend even a tiny fraction of it. Isn't it equally valid to say that to the lay person, a lawyer speaking in a strange, twisted tongue and crafting eldritch contracts are fell sorcerers. Or perhaps, biomed researchers poking and prodding at things and energies unseen to achieve miracles, or abominations, or life.

I think to most human beings, "magic", simply denotes things they cannot personally comprehend of understand, and in the modern world that covers quite a vast array of fields, software engineering and tech simply one amongst many.


General note first, then specific comment: One thing to be cautious about in this discussion is how you're defining "magic". There are so many forms ("real" magic vs. what appears in literature, magic as technology, magic as science, magic as arbitrary and illogical ritual) that the thread will inevitably start to fray as people bring different definitions to the discussion without quite noticing how the definition biases their reply.

Heteromeles mentioned the "method of loci". This seems to be a specific instance of what is now reasonably well understood in cognitive science: It's much easier to remember something if (i) it's accompanied by a strong emotion or vivid image, such as Heteromeles' example of the typical male response to attractive women; (ii) it is memorized with respect to, retrieved by, and linked to pre-existing knowledge (whether a memory palace or an alphabetic listing); and (iii) it is stored through conscious effort rather than the assumption that memory just happens.

Point (i) is why so much of the oral tradition uses rhymes, because the pattern recognition inspired by the rhyme helps readers predict (and remember) how the next line ends. Point (ii) is why modern pedagogical technique is to start with what someone already knows and then relate new information to that existing knowledge structure. Point (iii) is important; I've stopped counting how many times I've tried to persuade my son that remembering something takes conscious and sometimes sustained effort. Whether you've got inherently good memory or inherently bad memory, it's easier to remember things if you make an effort.


Re: '... at a social scale, increased communications capabilities reduce overall trust, both through overt surveillance, and through reduced reliance on trust. (This is a hypothesis, I may well be wrong.)'

I see three factors at play here that might explain why a lot of modern day (online) communications seem weaker than face-to-face interactions:

1- communications (linkages/well-understood/visible paths),
2- trust (feedback - ability to correct/hone in on plus regular/timely/consistent effect),
3- overt surveillance (unidentified 3rd party? - out of the loop therefore missing first 2 items, plus the subject has no idea which of his/her actions link to/cause a response.

This may change with the adoption of intermediaries/techno-spirit guides, i.e., Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant that will be able to individualize/personalize the interaction experience. (These corps have probably already conducted marketing research/consumer lab studies on differences in level of 'trust' and 'affiliation' between users and non-users. And, I'm guessing that the results will be apparent by how big a marketing push these AI get.)


I have been using the term "incantation" since the 1970s to describe a sequence of commands, instructions etc. that achieve an effect, without the understanding of what it does. I used to get flamed for it by other computer people ("just because YOU don't know what it means, doesn't mean that OTHER people don't", though usually neither was true), but that stopped sometime in the 1980s, as Microsoft software, Emacs, Perl etc. became common. I would date the widespread use of the magic comparison to that era.

Once, when we had a really foul networking problem on a supercomputer, after repeated failures to fix it by rational approaches, my colleague and I listed every possible location of failure and remedial action, and ended up with "sacrifice a black cock". The step immediately before that succeeded, but it was close :-)


I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons since before the "Advanced" game came out, so it would probably work fairly well for me. And some kind of tree-like diagram structure would probably be good for learning Juniper commands, which are very much tree-like...


Apparently a lot of the prosecution of witches happened along borders between Protestant and Catholic areas, where anyone who seemed a little less than perfect in their religious practices might be leaning towards the other side.

And I wouldn't be surprised to see Google/Facebook/Amazon throwing their programmers to the wolves on privacy/surveillance issues!


And there's the phrase "Wave a dead chicken over it," which has always amused me.


Thing about magic is that it's secret and controlled by the guild. Keeping magic out of the hands of the general public maintains high prices and the guild's power. Part of that control just comes from making spells difficult to comprehend (which is partly just the nature of the beast, partly built in on purpose). But part of the control comes from the guild's influence in political circles. So any witch burning will strictly be the burning of non union witches by supposed "luddites" or "inquisitioners". But we all know who's really behind it. Scrolls and printing presses do not mix.


Indeed it was my point!

Other definitions exist, all of them repellent.

You've raised a couple of interesting points of your own: one of them being that top-level programmers don't have a rigorous understanding of software or hardware.

If your study of the subject included Andrew J Tanenbaum's 'Structured Computer Architecture', then you probably *do* know. Or have, at least, worked your way up from logic gates to microcode to assembler to a simple model of compilers and the process by which code will actually run.

Where programmers don't know, or don't look hard enough into, is coding where the program and the compilation aren't rigorously verifiable - and very few people use the languages and verification tools that do permit a mathematical standard of proof.

Every programmer should do it once: some of us definitely have.

Meanwhile, your definitely point stands up when you pick out asynchronous programming. It's difficult, it requires rigorous analysis for even the most simple cases, and it can throw out situations where the processes are fundamentally nondeterministic, or so complex as to be effectively so.

Now add on the reality of bug-ridden libraries and unspecified behaviour in the most popular compilers and interpreters; and it is fair to say that the majority of competent programmers don't know how their programs actually work.

A decreasing number of us can know, if we ever choose to put a lot of time and effort into it; a handful can and do and mostly work in aviation, security, or the academic study of complilers.

You wil notice that I chose to point to competent programmers and I'm certain there are some.

So: a point that's not absolutely true, but mostly true; and true in very dangerous ways.

The upper deciles among programmers are starting to realise that the world we program into is becoming very unforgiving, and some of what we build requires far, far better foundations.

Your point about magic needing either to difficult to use, or difficult to make, has an obvious corollary: if it was neither, it wouldn't be magic.

It would just be commonplace: a wooden stick, a biro or a brick, if you consider them as-is and as-used, instead of looking at their underlying chemistry.

It *might* be magic turning on a light - switches are easy to flip, but generating and distributing electricity to millions of people is hard - but I would say that this is 'magic' to those who do not or cannot understand electricity and generators and transmission grids; and just another stick or brick to those who understand it.

Magic has *mystery* as well as difficulty.

It also has a very specific sense of the mysterious: I don't regard the processes of biology as magic, even though they are not fully understood, because they are measurable and the subject of organised study that will, some day, result in them being documented end-to-end as carefully as anything emerging from an Intel chip fab.

We don't yet comprehend cellular biology from end to end, but we recognise it as comprehensible and therefore not magical.

For some, it will be magic, no matter how comprehensible it is to those who wish to comprehend it; and 'magical thinking' pervades too much of what we do, in every field, even among studious and conscientious engineers.

Resentment is the depressingly predictable response; as is fear.

So your final point rings true. However, the witchhunt end game will arise in the all-too-easily comprehensible soil of reprehensible acts by programmers and those who pay them - us! - to commit or facilitate abominable acts.

Some of those acts, like the Volkswagen 'defeat device' will be evil 'magic' to the uncomprehending masses, but transparent to anyone who seeks an explanation; other acts, like algorithmic targeting on social media to disengage the voters, or to subtly manipulate their views, may well be fundamentally incomprehensible, even to their authors, except in the most rudimentary sense of pushing buttons while a nondeterministic algorithm directs actions which we'll never fully understand.

...And that, I think, is functionally indistinguishable from demonology.


Certainly the famous (horribly so) "Lancashire witches of Pendle" were clearly catholics, who ran foul (fowl?) of local puritan extremists


It also strikes me that, at a social scale, increased communications capabilities reduce overall trust, both through overt surveillance, and through reduced reliance on trust. (This is a hypothesis, I may well be wrong.)

I think you are right -- with huge amount of data on any particular individual available at everyone's fingertips, trust is less needed. But I think it is a positive development -- or at least more positive than not. When trust was paramount, you naturally divided the world into two groups: those you could trust, and those you could not -- that second one being much larger. It greatly contributed to the "Us vs Them" mindset, which already comes to humans quite naturally. Nowadays, "Us vs Them" mindset is harder to justify.


Only if you are rational. "us vs them" has never been about rationality.


True. But prior to modern communications, "us vs. them" was actually rational position. If the minority who ARE rational drops that position, it is still an improvement.


Quipu (or as they now like to spell it khipu) seem to span the protowriting/writing boundary.

The difference between protowriting and writing is that writing tends to encode sounds, and if you hand a piece of writing to two different people to read, they will both read the same thing from it. Protowriting tends to be ideogrammatic, encoding ideas rather than sounds. As a result, everyone tends to read it in their own way. Mnemonic devices in general fall at varying levels into the protowriting side of the spectrum: they're designs, which can be as simple as a pattern of scratches, which are distinctive enough that you remember them. You can use a sequence of scratches on a rock the same way you use a memory palace to remember a sequence of information, but the information is all in your head--the mnemonic device is just a helper. Some mnemonic devices are more sophisticated, but they all tend to work this way.

According to the khipu researchers, there are at least a dozen different "genres" of khipu, based on extant samples and historical testimony. Some definitely use knots to record numbers, but these accounts are in the minority. According to Spanish colonial records, khipus were also used to record laws, "contracts," geography, history, etc. Recently, a couple turned up that may well encode messages, using the characteristics of the different strings (six different sources of fiber, dyed and spun differently) to possibly represent syllables. Used this way, a khipu could hold a few hundred syllables, about a tweet's worth of text. Another set (disclosed to Frank Salomon in the early 1990s) apparently encoded the "clan's" annual work plan (this field gets divided into these segments for these crops, etc. It's way too complicated to explain here, but you can see how the coding would work). That villages started planning on paper around 1900. And the Wari predecessors of the Inkan Khipu apparently had few if any knots, but used more multi-colored cords, suggesting that the cord characteristics held more information than the placement and type of knots, at least for them.

So there are a bunch of different ways to use knotted, colored cords to deal with information.

According to Lynne Kelly, the memory/orality researcher, khipus can be used as the most versatile mnemonic devices of all she's experimented with, but in the book I read, she didn't explain all the techniques she used with them. She does memory experiments by creating a device and using it to memorize some body of information. She's created two Aborigine-style songlines, one to memorize facts about the countries in descending order of size from China to Pitcairn Island, another to memorize the history of the world, a lukasa-like bead board (with beads glued semi-randomly to a piece of wood) to memorize the birds of her home Australian state, a khipu (colored strings tied to a cord) to memorize art history, and about 30 others based on historical models. That's her test to see if the techniques actually work. Unfortunately, she only just inked the contract to publish her techniques, so we won't know exactly what she's doing until around 2019. Or you can take one of her workshops in Australia...


Hey, do you want to see something that will make you burn the programmer, burn all the programmers, burn the planet possibly?

Read this article. Then go to youtube, search for "elsa spiderman" and gaze into the abyss.

I think the Vile Offspring future is becoming increasingly more plausible.


Re: 'But part of the control comes from the guild's influence in political circles.'

Not sure that's possible given how many hundreds of millions of kids have had virtually unlimited access to computers/the Internet over the past 20+ years. Further, these kids were encouraged to play with their computers (or better yet self-teach themselves programming) 'cos computers were 'where the future jobs are'.

According to the below, while computer related jobs are still on the increase overall, it seems that some jobs/subgroups have reached saturation or obsolescence with fewer positions likely needed in the future.

'Employment in computer occupations is projected to increase by 12.5 percent from 2014 to 2024, and due to its large employment size, this growth is expected to result in nearly half a million new jobs, far more than any other STEM group. The group projected to add the second largest number of new jobs from 2014 to 2024 is engineering occupations, with 65,000 new jobs.'


'The only STEM group that is projected to show little or no change is drafters, engineering technicians, and mapping technicians, with a slight projected decline of 1.4 percent, a decline of about 9,600 jobs.'


"I didn't have the nerve to explain to that Stross's 'Vile Offspring" were nothing more than metaphor; that the bizarre creatures who had given up their humanity to practice 'Economy 2.0' were already here."


You've raised a couple of interesting points of your own: one of them being that top-level programmers don't have a rigorous understanding of software or hardware.

In my experience, it depends. My own path started from the 1980's 8-bit home computers (which I didn't have but my friends had) through (again, friends') Amigas to my own PC compatibles. The early ones needed knowledge of the hardware to really program them and even the Amiga was often programmed using low-level assembler. I also studied electrical engineering instead of computer science, at least on paper, and in the university and after that at work I've noticed that many programmers don't have that good knowledge on the hardware. This is of course more prominent in people younger than I am because they have used more high-level interfaces - it's kind of different to start your computer life with C=64 Basic interface than with Windows 95.

I'm happy to have the experience, even now in my work as an auditor. It helps to understand how the things work at least a bit. Also, in one project I got a comment that I had been in the demoscene - we were working on a mobile application with an UI and I suggested some tricks to make the UI seem faster, and they were kind of the same tricks which were used in demos. I was only on the edges of the early 1990's demoscene, but played enough with the PC stuff to be able to transfer some of that to 2010's mobile application development.


Troutwaxer "And there's the phrase "Wave a dead chicken over it," which has always amused me."

Back when I worked for the feds, we had a Xerox photocopier that I nicknamed "the Antichrist"; the name stuck, much to the annoyance of management. It got its name for its habit of not only jamming whenever you really needed your copies in a hurry, but also devouring the originals being copied in various creative and nasty ways.

One day, I came for a crucial copy job, and held my coffee mug threateningly over the control panel. "You may be smarter than me," quoth I, "but *I* can 'accidentally' spill this mug into your brain and kill you. Your move."

It copied perfectly; moreover, it left my originals unharmed. Thereafter, every time I brought my mug of coffee, it behaved just that docilely -- but if I forgot my coffee, woe betide me. And I wasn't the only one. Whether or not there was anything to this ritual is largely beside the point; like some forms of magic, it worked because we believed in it.


Well, that was depressing. Who is perpetrating these specific examples? (Besides youtube, and disregarding the broader problem.) Not obvious from a few minutes of digging; e.g. gmail address contacts.
I presume you're asking us to think about the broader questions including how this stuff can be neutered (e.g. disruption of viral marketing) without major deployment of technologies that can be similarly abused, e.g. general-purpose algorithmic idea censorship could be abused to prevent spread of ideas not approved by [power structures or others], and be used to shape or introduce ideas as well, as he hints at:
While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want.

The bits of work I've sampled so far in AI ethics were weak and near-appallingly naive. Very broad survey that might be useful to some: The Ethics of Computing: A Survey of the Computing-Oriented Literature (pdf available, May 2016) Anything better that anyone knows about?
Cautionary tales like some of the worldlines that Charlie creates for his fiction are probably a lot more useful.
(slate fluff with (mostly fluffy) links) Prototyping a Better Tomorrow
or search for "science fiction" prototyping in


"Wave a dead chicken over it,"

"Laying on of hands" is another. (The healing version.) Many techies are accomplished healers, though most are reluctant to admit it.
I'm reminded of a story "The Fix" from the "Damned if I Do" story collection by Percival Everett (worth one's time IMO). (A google search found an illegal scan.)
It's about Sherman Olney, who can fix ... anything - whatever is broken. (An old ... archetype(?), yes but well done.) It does not end well.


I sometimes wonder why the magical metaphor wasn't embraced whole heartedly by computer programmers in the 1970s and 1980s, and by user interface designers since the 1980s. Most programmers today are more familiar with Tron / cyberpunk memes than with magical. And our ideas of future computer interfaces as portrayed in film and TV are based on glowing blue holograms.

And this is despite Vernor Vinge writing "True Names" in 1981, before Neuromancer and Tron.

I suggest that treating computer systems as magic is fine for people who don't have the Puritan "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" cultural background. I don't know enough to be certain, but aren't the Japanese quite comfortable with the world including everyday objects being inhabited by a whole range of spirits, both good and bad?


"Many techies are accomplished healers, though most are reluctant to admit it."

I've done that more times than I can count...

Owner of some engine-driven piece of equipment: "It won't start! I've tried and tried! It just doesn't work!"

Me: (pulls cord) (RRRRRMMMMMMM!!!) "Yes it does".

Though the one that was particularly memorable was the VCR that refused to function no matter what I did; I just could not figure out what was wrong with it. So in the end I gave up, put the lid back on it and went to bed.

In the morning it was exactly as I had left it, apart from two differences:

1) There was a large pigeon turd squarely in the centre of the lid.

2) It was working.

Which caused me to ponder: what will be the reaction if I return it to the owner saying "it's working now, but whatever you do do not clean the pigeon shit off it"...?


I object to being called down to the same level as those things that infest webservers... :)


"True Names" is still the best story about the metaphor of computing as magic, written by someone who actually understood the technology and was very familiar with the fantasy classics.

While magic is a fun metaphor for programming, programming isn't very much like magic. Maybe I have been missing out on all the thrilling fantasy stories about refactoring the spells before they collapse under their own complexity, but I think not.


The post makes a strong case that most folks want to program by hand-waving, not by writing regular expressions. At least I hope that is the point. Left-Hand-Path looks like the best excuse to get a VR rig I have seen yet. But if I have to write spells as regexes, first I want to know the Unicode character classes for all the various demons and elementals.

Maybe I have been missing out on all the thrilling fantasy stories about refactoring the spells before they collapse under their own complexity
What do you think Cthulhu is?

" For example, if the payoff is the freedom of the skies, I think a fair few highschoolers would study a *lot* of math and meditative disciplines"

You'd think so wouldn't you. Turns out to not be the case. You can buy a hang glider for half the cost of a motorcycle. Once you get good, you can add power for about the same expenditure again. Paragliders are even cheaper. I started flying when the sport was new and expanding quickly. I thought it would be more popular than golf by the time I was this age. Instead it's a tiny tiny niche sport that's barely hanging on by its fingernails.


I've been learning verse (mostly but not all English) by heart for over fifty years. It has given me a strong sense for how useful rhyme and alliteration and meter are as mnemonic devices; I probably know a dozen or more metrical poems for every free verse poem I've learned. Even a largely metrical poem such as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a challenge, because it doesn't have a regular pattern throughout, and I only know significant chunks of it because I've read them over and over; it was easier to learn "V's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves," despite the Victorian thieves' slang, because it has a refrain ("Booze and the blowens cop the lot") and a regular rhyme scheme (ABABBCBC).

But even the poems with rhyme and meter get into my memory because I read them, and recite as much as I remember, and glance at the parts I don't, and then recite them again, over and over, till I have them by heart. It's probably between twenty and fifty repetitions per poem—and I have a generally good memory. Active effort to learn things is really critical.


Over twenty years later I can still sing the first verse of the Matsushita company song, purely phonetically, without understanding more than a few isolated words of it. Singing along every day for a couple of years is what did it.


I love the HEXEN tarot but I think it benefits at least as much from its focus on the history of utopian movements & the military industrial complex as it does from the tech element.

For those not in the know: if you like both the Laundry Files and What The Dormouse Said, you owe it to yourself to own a copy of the HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck and learn to read it.


"What do you think Cthulhu is?"

Under construction.


One of my huge regrets in life is my failure, at 20 years old, to purchase a hang-glider at a garage sale for $150.00


I started flying when the sport was new and expanding quickly. I thought it would be more popular than golf by the time I was this age. Instead it's a tiny tiny niche sport

In practice, though, flying requires preparation, good weather and is pretty calm and peaceful. Which is not really what young men want from their motorbikes.

The other sort of flying has much more vigorously applied negative consequences. If a wheel falls off their motorbike even the most casually attired motorbike rider generally wakes up in hospital in some degree of disrepair. A much less severe failure of a hang glider component generally leads to a funeral. This despite motorbike riders being known colloquially as "organ donors" (fit, young men who die in large numbers are very handy in that sense... as I keep reminding myself every time one of them does 100kph and 130dB in the residential street I live in).

I've seen more than a few minor takeoff mistakes end with paragliders first taping over the numerous small cuts they acquired, then doing much the same to the similar damage their sail suffered from the protective bushes in the "almost takeoff" zone. That's a 30-60 minute recovery from the sort of error that to a motorbike rider would mean just picking their bike up and ten seconds later having another go.

Not to mention that you can ride a motorbike in a howling gale but I wouldn't want to fly a hang glider or paraglider in one.


As far as burning programmers as a general group, no more so than witch-burning led to a general destruction of mystics and mystic infrastructure. The English king who wanted a divorce caused way more damage to psychic fraudsters than any number of witch-finders ever managed.

People who approach technology as a mystic site tend to have bad experiences, and are generally very bad at dealing with it. Technology actively rewards an analytic approach and the application of reason. While it's true that even Buddhist monks are often seen suffering iPhone blindness these days, IMO that's more a consequence of technology having won.

At least right now, at a species level we're burning our seed corn and hoarding our poo under the pillow. That's demented. Maybe a mystic intervention is what's needed?


Have wondered about the chain of events in both programming and spell-casting that translates words into physical effect. In both 'disciplines' the only thing the non-practitioner sees is the immaterial becoming material (or acting on something material) with all the interesting stuff hidden from view. With computers/Internet, there's a keyboard, screen, electric cables, etc. - metals, plastics, electricity. With magic, there's ...?

Unless magic is akin to gravity, i.e., permeates everywhere but no one really understands its spooky action at a distance feature. (Yeah, I know this phrase has also been used to refer to quantum entanglement.)


Not sure if these qualify as incantations (in the sense of cantare--to sing), but here's a great example of quite a lot of information being inserted into a pop song format: the A Capella Science channel on YouTube.

It's a great time-waster, if nothing else.


A Capella Science channel on YouTube

:) Oh dear. So many science jokes and references.


Probably not a mistake... A garage sale glider is probably best used for a static display.

Still, if you're still alive, it's not too late. Even if you can't run, there's similar things you can do. "Nanolight" trike for instance.

Slightly more expensive than a hang glider, but you don't need a mountain. About the same price as a motorcycle.

It's not safe, but it's not like high altitude mountaineering or riding in the Isle of Man either.


There's some other way to remember stuff?


I have an electronic prosthesis that remembers things much better than I do.


Re: Acapella science

Thanks for posting!

His 'Bohemian Gravity' (Rhapsody) is fantastic. Someone should post a link to this on the Official Queen site which includes quite a few covers of BoRhap including one by the Muppets. Think that Queen would be delighted - all but Freddie studied science/engineering at uni. (Dr. Brian May is an astrophysicist.)


Dr. May got his Ph.D. fairly recently, I think. Just in the last year or two. The dude's a real-life Buckaroo Banzai.


I'm reminded of a story "The Fix" from the "Damned if I Do" story collection by Percival Everett (worth one's time IMO). (A google search found an illegal scan.)

Local Public Library has a copy on-shelf & will email me when it's been transferred to my preferred local branch.


Two years after his CBE, in 2007. Then he was chancellor of John Moores University from 2008-2013. That's a heck of a fast-track promotion.


The opposite effect also exists, where equipment will stop working in the presence of certain people.


It's definitely got more than just "computing/magic" going on - I seem to remember describing it as a portrait of the Californian Ideology once. I'm willing to admit multiple viewpoints on this.

(Occult device to interpret world/piece of art can be interpreted multiple ways, film at 11. :-P)


More of a computer-vision hack, but -

"Meet the Artist Using Ritual Magic to Trap Self-Driving Cars"


Gasdive mentioned the "Pauli effect":

I offer two bits of anecdata for your edification and amusement: First, one of my colleagues way back when I worked for the feds. The guys in the electronics lab told me they had to exclude him from the lab while they were calibrating equipment or using it for measurements. According to them, it was something like his personal magnetism that caused the problem, and they were convinced it was a real effect. (No, they weren't bullshitting me; a couple other folks shared similar stories about Dr. S, including the technician who did all his measurements using the equipment.)

Real effect? Who knows. Realistically? Probably he just wore a lot of polyester and accumulated a significant charge of static electricity.

Item the second, a colleague who'd been struck by lightning twice on different occasions, while in the presence of others (forestry technicians) who were close enough to him to be equally plausible targets. And he was apparently unharmed. He kept both pairs of shoes with melted rubber soles in his office as proof.

Real effect? Well, MF was not even remotely a bullshitter -- you tend to know this about someone after 10 years working with them -- his story was supported by witnesses, and the shoes seemed pretty compelling. Maybe his deodorant and aftershaved formed a shell of conductive material over the outside of his body?


Skin effect - lightning has a fast rise time. More common result than you think.


I don't know; you can put a sample bridge truss in a jig, test it to destruction, and be confident in the strength of others produced from the same design. It's really hard to do that with software.

I'm finding the role of religion in empires fascinating -- and not just Christianity. Every major pre-industrial empire save the Mongols had a single established religion (Rome, Persia, India, China, Byzantine, Ottoman, Spanish, British, ...), and I suspect trust and predictability had a great deal to do with this. Durkheim and Weber focus on this extensively.
Yes, Rome's state cult and Confucianism, but India? The Mughals are about the closest, but IIRC most of those ran a multifaith court and one was so tolerant he created a syncretic religion attempting to combine the best of his subjects' faiths.

Not certain I'd say China had a "single established religion". You could be a Confucian and a Buddhist; a Confucian and a Daoist; etc. The problem with Christianity (from the Chinese perspective) was that it insisted that you couldn't be a Confucian and a Christian. (Ricci and the Jesuits finessed it so you could by considering Confucianism as a philosophy, but Benedict XIV put the kibosh on that.)

And for quite a lot of history it didn't matter what your religion was as long as you followed the laws.

Excluding pre-unification China, where religion and state were often the same thing.


You're talking about things that are a lot more than 20 years old. But what's with cut and paste - are libraries too hard to use now?

It's a coincidence that I just finished a blog post showing why libraries can be hard to use. There's a programming language named R, which has a library called Tidyverse. In "Second-Guessing R", I ask whether I was justified in spending my time experimenting with Tidyverse to better understand its behaviour. The experiments themselves, described in "Experiments with count(), tally(), and summarise()", didn't take a lot of time, but it's still time I could have used for other work. If you skim the list of points in the first half of the latter article, and the code in the second half, you can see the things I was trying to find out. "Second-Guessing R" puts these in the context of other languages, and explains why my knowledge of those languages made me cautious.


You can't? You can and do, and I teach how to write programs that will work 25 years from when they are written on hardware and under operating systems whose concepts were unknown to the programmer (or even not invented) when the program was written. And, yes, I have done that, with no more fiddling than needed to build a truss bridge in a location with slightly different topography. You need to use a language that is likely to remain around in a compatible form, of course.


Um no. There are plenty of Muslims in China, and that whole monotheism thing doesn't get them persecuted (possibly siding with the Mongols, on the other hand...). Back in the Tang dynasty and before, Christianity was welcomed, and indeed the Church of the East (modern Chaldeans) had a Chinese archbishop about 1500 years ago.

No, the modern problem with Christianity is most likely due to the Tai Ping rebellion (1850-1864) which probably holds the record for largest death toll to date in a civil war. Hong Xiuquan read a Bible passed out (illegally) by a Jesuit missionary, converted himself to his own version of Christianity (it helped that they used Hong to translate Noah, apparently, so he saw his name in the Bible early on and declared himself the younger brother of Jesus). He then decided to institute the Kingdom of God on Earth and throw out the westerners and the corrupt imperium. His rebellion swept southern China until he set himself up as emperor of a Fundamentalist Christian nation and nearly took Beijing. His version of Christianity would be familiar to the Taliban, but millions of people died trying to overthrow the rather corrupt Ching dynasty. Fourteen years later, millions more people died in the fall of the Taiping, which probably wouldn't have happened if the Europeans hadn't sided with the Ching. Note that this was *after* the first opium wars, so one might well blame Europeans for selling massive amounts of Indian opium in trade for Chinese tea for at least partially causing the rebellion.

Anyway, if I was in a country where militant home-rolled and rather heterodox Christianity, growing on the back of an opioid crisis, nearly managed to destroy a corrupt but still praiseworthy system, I'd think twice about Christianity too. Good thing I'm in the US, where we don't have to worry about heterodox Christianity in politics...


Yeah, and its nice how we don't have to worry about an opoid crisis either.

*Shakes head sadly.*


None at all.

After I wrote that, I realized that "Imagine the Tai Ping Rebellion in mid 21st Century America, with the multinationals taking the place of the European powers and abundant nods to Scarface" isn't the stupidest elevator pitch I've ever thought of. Guess it's free for the taking now...


Correction, Hong Xiuquan didn't get a Bible from a Jesuit. If you believe Wikipedia, he got a book called Good Words to Admonish the Age (a translation of the New Testament with various other writings) from a Congregationalist missionary. After "having mystical visions" and failing the Imperial examinations four times in a row, he sat down to read it and had his, erm, revelations.


The opposite effect also exists, where equipment will stop working in the presence of certain people.
You understand that this effect, and its opposite, are literally magic, right? :-)

If you're not so inclined, here's an Evil Device for increasing the odds of the Pauli effect[1]:
That's a "Milty Zerostat 3 Anti-Static Gun, Blue" if the amazon link doesn't work for you. (These have been around in variations for many decades.)
Hard to use stealthily though. I do not know of a similar device for "healing" electronics.
[1] Haven't tried with current electronics. Worked fine a few decades ago in a couple of tests. Was in my back pocket (figuratively) if my father ever started watching Fox News. [2]
[2] I lost my dad to Fox News: How a generation was captured by thrashing hysteria

Engineer (EE) story: back when smoking in the workplace was a thing, a common prank (I was told) when somebody had completed a new prototype but hadn't applied power yet was to insert a long piece of tubing under the device, and as power was first applied (AKA "smoke test"), blow smoke through the tubing.
Another prank (I was told) was to wrap the leads for a large electrolytic capacitor around it in two spirals not touching, charge it up, and toss it at the "new guy". They were expected to work out what it was mid-flight, and not catch it if they thought quickly enough.


Well, I've had enough radios fuzz out when I touched their antennas, and GPS units that didn't pick up signals until they were away from my hands, that I assume I'm "radioactive" or something. The cure (set the GPS unit down and step away until it gets a signal lock) is straightforward, but at the same time, I wonder if other people have similar issues.


"You understand that this effect, and its opposite, are literally magic, right? :-)"

I do.

As Han Solo said, I've seen a lot of weird stuff. Stuff that's *easier* to explain by invoking demons and spirits, but which I'm sure has a more difficult but also more accurate explanation. I just don't know what that might be. Sometimes it's harder to say "I don't know" than to say "I know (invoke some spirit/demon)". Stuff that's a lot more pantomime than just equipment failing.


Stuff that's *easier* to explain by invoking demons and spirits, but which I'm sure has a more difficult but also more accurate explanation.

I work with a guy who is notorious for having circuit boards stop working. Unfortunately he's an embedded developer who works with bare boards a lot. Sadly the explanation is both obvious and prosaic - he wears a lot of polyester and is very lax about anti-static precautions.

I've been accused of that with bicycles, but I am certain that is just because I'm unexpectedly powerful. Most obviously when I was playing with a power meter on a bike and the wind trainer failed. It's just a squirrel cage fan with a small roller on the other end of the shaft, the roller driven by the bike tyre when the bike is in a stand. The overspeed failure mode of that is explosive destructuring of the cage which is exciting to be around. That happened at around 1400-1500 watts. For comparison, Indurain is rumoured to have peaked at 2000 watts and Olympic sprinters between 1500 and 1800 watts. So getting 1400 watts out of a random civilian is odd. But it does explain my long history of breaking bicycles in normal use.

The "technician effect" (things mysteriously start working as the technician arrives) is generally either the IT Crowd effect or the result of rubber ducking. Viz, you turn it off to wait for the technician, then turn it on and whaddayano, it works now. Rubber ducking is where you explain your problem to someone else (or a rubber duck), and suddenly it all makes sense.


Milty Zerostat 3 Anti-Static Gun, Blue

You mean a piezo-electric igniter, I'm sure. Much cheaper, less precise and with minor modification just as capable of turning random gadgets into e-waste. Or disfavoured aunties into shrieking objects of popular entertainment. Not that you should, mind.

I've just been watching some of the bow geek stuff on youtube, and been reminded that without a fair chunk of science and maths a lot of technology is mysterious.

Here's a nice man explaining why draw weight is basically irrelevant to "power" and using very basic maths and some experiments to show why none of the numbers people use to bow-wank actually explain much, but in the end he seems to think projectile energy is the least useless readily available option (he points out that a longbow emits about 1% of the energy of a shotgun firing a deer pellet, but they still killed a lot of people with longbows).

Being killed by a longbow is not mysterious, but it is hard to explain. And debugging a longbow is very difficult - one of the amusing things is where he tries to explain how the modern replicas he's using differ from the originals, and says "the art of making them is lost". So when historical numbers don't look anything like our numbers, it might not just be exaggeration by the ancients. Or the larger size of modern kings (bigger feet).


I was thinking more like random objects flying off tables and smashing on nearby walls, or big heavy objects flying out of empty rooms. Giant (half a metre across) hand print shaped burns appearing in people's polyester shirts, and the skin below when they go off to the toilet (like someone gets up, goes into the toilet, closes the door, there's a giant bang and they stagger out with said hand print on them). Stones leaking viscous red fluid and then getting so hot they start burning holes in the book they were sitting on. Said rock being smashed up into little bits, the bits swept up and thrown away, the dust vacuumed up, and then being all back together some time later. People being chased by vacuum cleaners. Like I said, a bit more pantomime than equipment breaking.

Demons is the *easy* answer, but it's lazy to just invoke 'oh, it's just demons'. Much harder to say 'I don't have a clue what the fuck is going on'. But more accurate. It was a pretty weird time.


You mean a piezo-electric igniter, I'm sure.
I mean something that can be used at (short) range e.g. 30 cms, and leaves no residue or obvious damage for forensics to detect. Haven't tried a piezo-electric lighter, but have always been more interested in fixing than breaking. (A friend with different inclinations was involved.)


Much harder to say 'I don't have a clue what the fuck is going on'. But more accurate. It was a pretty weird time.
That is exceedingly weird. Thanks for the story. Where (and when) did this occur?


In my house. I think I was about 16 at the time, so about 1978ish. My parents marriage was on the rocks, and they decided to take a trip to my Father's homeland of India to see if that would fix things. It didn't, but when they were leaving Agra the taxi driver gave them a stone which he said was from the Akbar's Tomb (which is obviously bunkum). However it was a whitish stone that looked like worn marble. Roughly diamond shaped. When they leave the country the customs guy congratulates them on a most excellent souvenir instead of throwing them in jail for exporting antiquities.

A couple of months after the trip (more? less? I can't recall) they split up. He took it really hard and retreated to a downstairs room and played melancholy music all day. From about that point on things got really strange, though it seemed kinda normal. It turns out that really weird spooky shit going down isn't like the movies, and without the background music to tell you when to be frightened, there was a lot more 'wooo, wow, what just happened there'. Like you come home from school and your mum asks you to touch a stone that's been sitting on a shelf. It's hot and you say 'it's been in the sun' and she says it hasn't. Then she shows you a book (dictionary? Bible?) with a burn on it the same shape as the rock and she tells you she'd smelt smoke and found this. Neither of you know what's going on. Or you're sitting around the lounge room eating dinner and there's a smashing sound. You look up and the sugar bowl which had been on the table is in bits by the wall and there's sugar everywhere. Everyone goes 'err, that's odd' and goes back to watching telly while one of the adults cleans up the mess. Your dad goes to the toilet and there's much commotion and banging and comes out looking rather the worse for wear with a big burn on his chest. So someone takes the burnt shirt off him and someone else gets some creme from the medicine cabinet and then life goes on as normal for a few more days. Your mum sits down and writes everything she can remember about what's happening in a diary, but when she goes to update it all the pages are blank again. What do you do? Err nothing really. What can you do? Maybe a weji board (or however you spell it). You try that with the rock sitting on the board. Red fluid starts to ooze out while you're doing the whole weji thing. Your dad gets mad and smashes up the stone. Things get worse. There are strange smells in the house. Stuff goes missing. The vacuum cleaner incident happens. He walks out of his downstairs room and a iron bar he'd been keeping for no particular reason (he was a bit of a magpie) comes flying out of the room, just misses him and bangs into the wall. He moves out of the house and a few weeks later comes home with a stone that looks exactly the same but a bit smaller. He says that he was thrown out of bed, covered with blood and the stone was on his bedside table. You all think "that doesn't sound very likely". Yet he's got this bit of marble that looks the same. He didn't pop over to India to pick it up. It *could* be an elaborate hoax, but why?

A few days later there's a gigantic bang from downstairs, you go down and all the furniture is strewn about and there's a note over the stone saying it want's to go home and a few other things I forget now. The 's's are written as 'f's.

So your mum takes it to the post office, gets a padded bag, addresses it to the postmaster Agra with no return address and a note saying that there may be something in the package that needs to go back to the area of Akbar's tomb. She takes it to the counter and they ask "airmail or seamail" and my Mum asks the difference in price. After weighing the package the quote for airmail was for a large letter, not half a kilo of rock. The person at the counter doesn't seem to think this is unusual.

Yeah a very weird few months.


Actually I got a few of those things wrong. The note business was before my dad moved out, but the note had other things on it that I now can't recall. The thing with being thrown out of bed, that's when the note about wanting to go back appeared. Of course my dad could have written it, but it wasn't his hand writing and I don't think he would have known about the f/s thing. But it could have been just an amazingly elaborate hoax. Or demons. Or most likely, something completely different with a normal explanation that I don't have.


Um. Er... mumble... Maybe the stressed teenager in the house was poltergeisting? Just a mumbled thought.


Poltergeist was one of the terms thrown around at the time. But what does that really mean? It does seem to be associated with upset teens (which my brother and I certainly were). Certainly a series of natural rather than supernatural events, but not natural that I understand. 'Poltergeist' seems like 'photosynthesis' a hundred years ago. Something complex and deeply mysterious, to which we've attached a label.


This is stretching suspension of disbelief rather a long way.
"Poltergeist" ... really?
That means that ghosts & possibly "gods" are real & I'm simply just not buying that without some real, you know: evidence.

See also "Enfield Haunting"


There is a converse to that. Some of the 'scientific' explanations for well-documented 'parapsychological' were flatly incompatible with sanity. Such as hearing speech at levels over 10 dB below thermal noise levels, or coincidences with probabilities of 10^-12. Yes, both are possible, in an abstract sense, but such 'scientists' should then apply the same principles to their theories.


"This is stretching suspension of disbelief rather a long way."

Well I certainly wouldn't believe it if I were you. I'm not sure I believe it. I've got some rather vivid memories. I've got memories of having discussed this with the people who were there and in those memories they spoke as though they remembered those events. I remember my Mum telling me that when the package was put on the mail chute it stopped, and she described thinking "what do you want me to do? wave goodbye?"

Memories are amazingly unreliable. There's no physical evidence. All I can put my hand on my heart and say for certain is that I remember those events.

Even if my memories are accurate though, they're not evidence for gods and ghosts and fairies and all the rest of the tripe that's fed to us by people who want to control us and empty our pockets. They'd be evidence that there's something fundamental that we don't understand. It's *easy* to experience something you don't understand an say that all that crap we've been fed must be right after all, but I'm not buying that.


Oh, and certainly, the idea that it was cooked up by someone in the family certainly crossed everyone's mind. Having someone in the family suddenly become a world class illusionist out of the blue is certainly *possible*, but also pretty weird.


Like I said - see "Enfield Haunting"
IIRC the jury is still out on that one.

Playing devil's advocate ... imagine the chaos if a well-attested recorded incident or set of incidents were to be accepted as valid .....
The barrier to acceptance must, of necessity be very high for such things & I do nopt believe it.

But, look at the Shayler NOT-reactionless "drive", where far too many people are still trying to prove it can't possibly work, rather than trying to examine the forces & measured rsults obtained ....

Difficult, very difficult


"Difficult, very difficult"

You're not wrong. I'm able to exclude the possibility that I'm lying, but I'm not able to exclude the possibility that I've been fooled or that my memories are faulty. You on the other hand can't even exclude the chance that I'm lying.

All we can really say is to requote Han Solo. Seen some weird stuff.


1: "Really hard" != "can't".
2: What counts as "tested to destruction" or even "comprehensively tested" in software? There are so many more degrees of freedom than for a bridge truss.


It's not really hard at all - it just takes knowledge, moderate skill, some effort, and considerable care. Just like ensuring that any complex mechanical system isn't going to fail meeting its requirements, and is going to fail safe when it exceeds them. In both cases, you can't always eliminate conditions that your can't create, artificially - or have not thought of.

You can prove a program's design, mathematically. However, what I teach is how to code in self-checking so that the program will detect almost all of its own errors, as well as making it much more likely that a failure is detected in comprehensive testing. You can (and, ideally, should) use both.

2: What counts as "tested to destruction" or even "comprehensively tested" in software? There are so many more degrees of freedom than for a bridge truss.

I'm not claiming designing and building for reliability in software is hard. I'm claiming testing that reliability is.


Magick. Computers. Yup. I invoke an instantiation with the correct method....

The relationship of programming to magick... around '82 or '83, Tom Galloway (who, with his ladyfriend at the time, was my tenant, working on his MSc at Penn), was giving a talk at a monthly PSFS, and asked how many folks used computers in their jobs... and at least 2/3rds of the 30 or 40 people there did. Fans were *heavily* involved with it all, and the development of the 'Net, so are you surprised by the development of the relationship?

You also have to consider how magick is supposed to work: let's ignore the idiotic "the magic user makes the mystical gesture, and *poof*". The source of the magick is seen as either external - powerful beings, daemons (pun intended), deities, or whatever, or inherent in the person (midichlorians, anyone), in which case it rapidly becomes identical to psi. The one difference, I note, in the latter, is that scientific conservation laws are invoked, usually.

A good definition of magick is from Crowley, "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will".

So, um, the difference between that and programming is?

I should also remind folks of Sprague DeCamp's Incomplete Enchanter, and his syllogismobile.

I have trouble seeing a jihad, or even a pogrom, against computer folks - I mean, where would it stop? The person who fixes your TV? GIVE UP YOUR ZOMBIEPHONE? Yeah, right, say the folks who are about to walk between parked cars at dusk into traffic wearing dark clothes, and staring at their zombiephone without looking up.

What I could see is regulation and licensing. Consider this: my take on why magick users (sorcerers, witches, etc) were outlawed pretty much everywhere was this: what was the difference between what they did, or claimed to do...and what the local religious leaders did or claimed to do?

Oh, that's right: the latter supported the political power structure 99% of the time, so the rest were unlicensed and unregulated powers who might disturb those in power.


I sometimes liken computer programming to bargaining with evil genies: you can get your wishes granted, but you'd better phrase them exactly right, because you're going to get what you asked for rather than what you meant.


A good definition of magick is from Crowley, "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will".
I kinda liked the Crowly in Good Omens (escape by telephone in a 1990 book, Matrix fans) but have never read the other one.
An alternative, sci-fi take, short story, a bit cartoonish. The narrator is an AI: The Magician and Laplace's Demon (Tom Crosshill 2014)
O: “I could crash the stock market on any given day,” Ochoa said. “I could send President Kieler indigestion ahead of an important trade summit. Just as I sent Secretary Sanchez nightmares of a US takeover ahead of the Politburo vote.”

LD: I considered Ochoa’s words for a second. Even in those early days, that was a lot of considering for me.

O: Ochoa smiled. “You understand. It is the very impossibility of proof that allows magic to work.”


Hmm. Some programmer should be burnt. At the stake, preferably, before we all get burned by their code.

Even trivia, like someone not far from my desk who mixes "every curly brace on its own line" with "why don't you like 800 column lines? I have a 4k monitor, it's fine".

Maybe a voodoo doll would help.


STARTING with those supposedly-responsible for "The internet of Things"

Quite soon, people are going to be killed & maimed & scarred for life, because of the non-existent security procedures in those devices, followed, without any shadow of doubt by malicious attacks on said sysem.
Whether stupid irresponsible "pranksters" or deliberately malicious state actors, it doesn't matter.

Anyone willing to lay odds on how long before the inevitable disater occurs?


You and _Moz_ seem to think that most programmers take the decisions; they don't. The design, resource and implementation decisions are taken by marketdroids, bean counters and technically clueless execusuits. I know a lot of 'architects' and other senior staff who have argued that a decision was going to cause severe, long-term trouble (or even be flatly impossible), and been told to shut up and deliver what was demanded. I coined the term technopeasant a long time ago, and it describes the situation precisely.


Fully agree - with the refinement that comes from "cowardice by people who know better"

When the primary factor was neither "is this the correct solution, or a sensible compromise" nor "is this what the business wants / needs"; but instead "I'm worried how this will make me look to my bosses".

When middle-management is getting twitchy about their next bonus / next round of cuts, there are motivators that drive the otherwise-competent into personally beneficial, but technically or financially stupid decisions; "just patch it" / "just ram something in, claim it's fixed, and we'll worry about it in a month when we can declare it to be a different problem". Of course, they self-justify with cries of "but it's an Agile process", "we don't want to rock the boat", "excellence is the enemy of 'good enough'", or "it looks better on the metrics".

You can tell I've been career-damaged by a coward of a manager, can't you...


_Moz_ noted: "Some programmer should be burnt. At the stake, preferably, before we all get burned by their code."

Heh. Reboot the Salem witch trials, and let the smoke of burning programmers encourage the survivors to be more virtuous! *G*

Though the image is (highly inappropriately) amusing, I think a much more salutary effect would be achieved by eliminating the legal fiction of corporations being persons, pierce the hell out of the corporate veil, and make managers (particularly those at the C level) personally responsible for illegal or outright immoral/amoral decisions. We'll continue seeing bank crises and massive security breaches as long as senior managers are protected from liability, and corporations pay heavy fines for the actions of their managers. That punishes normal employees who had no say in the decisions (guess who gets laid off so companies can gift CEOs with multi-million dollar stock options) and minority shareholders (individuals who collectively lack the votes to change corporate behavior).

Connection to programming? I'd dearly love to see programmers (or at least their managers) trained to the same standard as professional engineers and given the same authority to say "I will not sign off on this; it is unacceptably shoddy/risky/dangerous/whatever". And hold them personally liable for making that call. There will always be unanticipated problems that the best due diligence in the world won't prevent. Managers should be offered legal protection against those problems. But the programming profession should establish a modern code of due diligence that managers must follow, and update that code as new threats/dangers are identified.

Problems? Of course. First, it seems unlikely any corporation would grant lower to middle managers this much authority. Second, this is nominally what our legal system already does (e.g., consumer protection laws). But perhaps making it explicit to the profession would reduce the frequency and severity of disaster.


Connection to programming? I'd dearly love to see programmers (or at least their managers) trained to the same standard as professional engineers

;) Oooooh, that's a touch cruel to those of us who regard ourselves as "software engineers"... you know, degree-qualified, trained and experiences, full membership of a professional institution. These days, programmers can even get C.Eng after our names!

I went down the professional accreditation route in the early 1990s because there were rumblings about needing Chartered status to sign off on safety-critical software (I was working on mission-critical stuff at the time). Of course, it all came to naught - possibly because we haven't really had a true Tay Bridge / Hindenburg / de Havilland Comet moment yet.


Martin noted that my comment about "professional" training of programmers kinda missed the mark: "that's a touch cruel to those of us who regard ourselves as "software engineers"... you know, degree-qualified, trained and experiences, full membership of a professional institution."

My bad, and apologies for the unintended meaning: I should have snipped that part and focused on the consequence (given the legal right based on such training to refuse to sign off), since that's the actual point I was trying to make. Clearly time for more coffee.


because we haven't really had a true Tay Bridge / Hindenburg / de Havilland Comet moment yet.
Well, the aforementioned "Internet of things" disaster I've been predicting will be it, I suspect.
Because we've all had plenty of warning & nothing at all has been done about it ....


Maybe, but even then it could be partly the users' fault rather than the programmers'.

Reasoning by analogy - My sis has a wireless network. So do several of her neighbours. She sometimes uses their networks because they've not set up network passwords (she has though) so she powers on and sees which network the machine picks up and uses that one.
I don't see that as "stealing the neighbours' internet" so much as the neighbours putting a stack of bank notes on the front wall and then complaining when some of the notes blow away.


You've got that slightly wrong: it does *exactly* as you tell it to do, *not* as you want it to do.

And, um, don't step back any further, or you'll smudge and break the line of the pentacle while you're talking to that demon....


Don't confuse Aleister Crowley with anyone else. Better, try finding and reading the bio of him in The Occult, by Colin Wilson.

And then you are allowed to wonder if he was an outside consultant, or whatever they called them before WWII, to the Laundry's predecessor.



Nahhh, let corporation remain "artificial persons". However, make the top execs and the Board PERSONALLY* responsible for all criminal actions, since the company isn't some AI, they personally led it in that direction.

That will take care of,oh, 66% of Wall St., and EVERY SINGLE PERSON involved with the subprime martgage fraud, give 'em all 10-20, and take away *EVERYTHING*[1] they own to pay smaller investors back.

1. As opposed to Millikin, "oh, we'll leave him with $144M, we don't want his family to suffer....


I agree. The legal fiction that corporations are persons is fairly useful for things like contracts.

Imagine, for instance, that corporations were not persons, and you wanted to make a contract with a corporation, say, to get internet service. You would have to make a contract with a specific human within that corporation, and if that person quit, you'd have to make another contract with another specific human within the corporation in order to maintain your internet connection.

That's the useful part of the artificial person argument. The weak part is that (AFAIK, please correct me), the origin of the idea that corporations are allowed freedom of speech is a ruling out of California, where a clerk penciled in a note to that effect on some ruling where it didn't particularly apply. Note that no judge made that ruling (that part I'm fairly sure of). The US Supreme Court nonetheless seized on that inappropriate, extrajudicial remark as its basis for things like Citizens United and the idea that corporations have the right to speech.

Personally, I'd like to see corporations treated as something like slaves under US law. No rights, no freedoms, no vote. I'd also like to see anyone employed by a corporation treated as an accomplice in crimes the corporation commits (unless they can demonstrate that they had no knowledge), and furthermore, the owners of the corporation should be responsible for any crimes the corporation commits, especially under owner orders. This was apparently the law when we had slaves, and why update that?


I have read one novel of his: Moonchild. Definitely bizarre.


You and _Moz_ seem to think that most programmers take the decisions;

Y'honner I wuz verballed! I dunt never say nuffink like 'at.

It depends very much where you work, and varies even within companies. I work for a company that is small, and silos employees. My boss is busy and owns the company, and his approach is very much "I demand this result. Go!" So yes, it's my decision a lot of the time. At the start of this project I got to spend a month grinding through language options before deciding, very reluctantly, that I wasn't willing to bet on a modern language introducing features that I knew I needed. So I used C++. Not everyone gets to make choices like that, it's kinda fun to be able to. At the more customer-interacting level, us typists generally get to make the first pass and then management react to our prototype. Again, lots of decisions are made by the programmers.

But I've also worked in places where a business analyst in another country would come up with requirements, communicate those to the managers and BA's in our country, they would go out for a liquid lunch then come back and bash randomly at they keyboards for a while before hitting send. We would interpret that email as best we could then post the result to our overseas victims and hope for the best. We never heard any complaints :)

Thing is, though, that because of both the work I do and my personal circumstances, I've been able to refuse to do things that particularly offend me. I've been told more than once "walking out like this is very unprofessional" and managed to reply "doing what you ask would have been unprofessional, this is taking responsibility for my actions". Not everyone has that luxury, or even the luxury of telling recruiters "I won't work for the gambling, drug or murder industries". But yeah, I do hold the people who work in those industries responsible for their own actions. "That sounds tricky, what's it like working to kill people more cheaply?"


let corporation remain "artificial persons". However, make the top execs and the Board PERSONALLY* responsible for all criminal actions

I would rather see them imprisoned just like other sorts of persons. When a person is in jail they can't work, their normal affairs are suspended and they're isolated from others. If that causes them financial problems, the government doesn't give a toss.

It wouldn't be especially hard to do the same to a corporate person: appoint a trustee similar to a bankruptcy trustee with much the same powers, forbid all communication except that individually and specifically passed through said "incarceration trustee", pay out all liabilities of the company, fulfill other contractual obligations as far as possible, even to the extent of continuing to employ staff of the incarcerated corporation, but the goal and end result is much the same as bankruptcy: the corporation ceases to trade. But the tweak is... for a specific time, with the intention of permitting it to resume trading afterwards. Like some of the US-style faux-bankruptcy setups.


the owners of the corporation should be responsible for any crimes the corporation commits, especially under owner orders. This was apparently the law when we had slaves, and why update that?

Because that goes directly against the nature of a limited liability company. The entire point of the "limited liability" is that the owners liability is limited to the capital invested. The exceptions to that are tiny and revolve around actions taken as owners - at the point you say "I own 51%, what I say goes", that's the point you've shed any limited liability protections. Loosely speaking, I'm ANAL and all the rest of it.

That said, I think we are far to quick to allow powerful people to escape responsibility. I have no problem at all saying to a company "someone is responsible for this. Produce that person or be found jointly and severally liable. Yes, actually, we will happily convict all 30,000 of you of murder and sentence you accordingly. If you doubt us you are welcome to perform the experiment". I would personally prefer to see that one done very cynically, via some kind of "oh, so Second Deputy Assistant Commissioner's Intern Bumblefunk made that decision, did they? Well, let us make sure that Bumblefunk remains in sole charge of that division of the company while the investigation proceeds".


Not everyone has that luxury, or even the luxury of telling recruiters "I won't work for the gambling, drug or murder industries". But yeah, I do hold the people who work in those industries responsible for their own actions. "That sounds tricky, what's it like working to kill people more cheaply?"

Cheaply be damned, in our particular branch of the murder industry we were working to kill one or two people at a time, more efficiently, but at huge cost. And pay the mortgage. AIUI you're an Antipodean, and have the added luxuries of "no-one is actually capable of invading us" alongside "anyway, who would want to cross jungles and deserts filled with lethal spiders, snakes, crocs, and drop bears".

Our product was a high-end fighter aircraft radar, sold only to democracies and the richest of tyrannies - but a hideously inefficient and expensive way of putting a fascist bootheel onto the neck of the downtrodden masses. If you wanted to torture a dissident with it, you'd either make them write test harnesses in assembler, debug it using only a data bus analyser, or drop all 250kg of it onto their toes.

In my case, it would have been cheeky to play the morality card; it was the Cold War, and I was a reservist infantry officer at the time - so my weekends and holidays were devoted to the study and practice of gun-fu and auftragstaktik (at the time, preventing the lads with blue and white stripey T-shirts from swimming ashore and blowing up the large petroleum depot we were supposed to guard in wartime, while waiting for the instant sunshine to arrive a couple of valleys along where the submarines lived). If I was engineering all week, damned if I was going to do it all weekend; and the Royal Scots had a rather elegant uniform to sweeten the deal. My mess dress would have got a Starred First from Cambridge, it was that smart. Shallow? Me? [1]

Should anyone doubt that our posture in the Cold War was purely defensive, I would point out that I was taught and trained far more about Soviet doctrine for their attack from the line of march, than I ever was about a British battlegroup in the attack. Rumour had it that after years of training to retreat slowly across Germany, the UK's Armoured Division in the 1991 Gulf War found it tricky when figuring out how they were going to do this whole "attacking" thing.

That said, Nena makes for a far better soundtrack. In the original German, obv.

[1] In a spot of seriousness, I can vouch for infantry training being the most intellectually demanding activity I have ever done. The problems are invariably wicked, there is never enough time to think them through, and you're working at your physical limit.


That said, I think we are far to quick to allow powerful people to escape responsibility.
Problem is this concept we have called "equality before the law". If the senior execs of a megacorp go to jail for the actions of their employees, so do the owners of the local coffee shop. Or trade union officials. Or the local head of Amnesty International.

It's a problem when the rich and powerful can evade responsibility more easily than anyone else, but I don't think mandatory sentencing is an improvement. We're outraged when rich bankers don't go to jail, but that's only because it makes the news.

I have no problem at all saying to a company "someone is responsible for this. Produce that person or be found jointly and severally liable. Yes, actually, we will happily convict all 30,000 of you of murder and sentence you accordingly. If you doubt us you are welcome to perform the experiment".

Because collective responsibility works so well when it's applied to, oh, asylum seekers? Blaming Indigenous Australian communities for crime?

Let's say money grubbing amoral company Buy N Large Australia Ltd has released a defective product that killed someone. You demand they produce that person or be found jointly liable. Which of the following do you think is more likely?

A. The company hands over evidence that it was a senior executive who has money and connections.

B. The company hands over a minority group employee who is too poor to mount an effective legal defence.


collective responsibility works so well when it's applied to, oh, asylum seekers? Blaming Indigenous Australian communities for crime?

Since we actually do those things, extending the privilege to shareholders and employees seems reasonable to me.

The argument against collective punishment has been convincingly rejected multiple times in Australia. The democratic margin is typically 90% for, 10% against. It's not close is what I'm saying.

I don't know if you noticed, but Australia suspended sections of our human rights law specifically so we could send the army in to enforce new laws we'd made up to target Aboriginal Australians. Said laws were implicitly about collective punishment - if some of you can't handle alcohol none of you can have it. Ditto pornography. Ditto "cashless welfare cards" which work like US food stamps but are explicitly rather than implicitly racist.

As I said, the trick is to treat the person handed over by the corporation as though they do actually have the power that they've been given. The assumption has to be that they're a scapegoat. That might be as simple as treating seriously their testimony about who else was involved, their "underlings" if you will. But it will more likely involve sanctions against the offending corporation as well as a prison sentence for the goat.

It's very "pour encourager les autres" ... would you work for a corporation if you thought the excrement was going to hit the impellor and you were likely to end up in prison so your boss could escape? How many times would that happen before people started saying no? How vicious would the unemployment system have to become before people decided that prison was better?


AIUI you're an Antipodean, and have the added luxuries of "no-one is actually capable of invading us" alongside "anyway, who would want to cross jungles and deserts filled with ...

... desert. Martin, it's the desert that will kill you, the animals are pretty much irrelevant. Especially the bits that look all lush and tropical forest, but don't have any fresh water in them (Far North Queensland). Our plan when invasion seemed possible was to let them have some ugly bits and see what happened (the infamous Brisbane Line).

A big chunk of the UK's problem is your political willingness to elect people like Thatcher, Blair and {ahem} Boris. Saying "we need to be really brilliant at murder because we're fucking morons at politics" doesn't wash. Not least because it's circular: maybe if you were a bit less enthusiastic about terrorism you wouldn't need to spend so much effort defending against terrorism? Less military adventurism, less need for a military? Until then "10% essential, 90% terrible"... we both know where we stand on whether that's a good thing.


Can we chill out on this, mostly because I'd rather have an interesting discussion than go through the bother of activating my annoying moderator account and talk to Charlie about chilling out yet another thread? That's my vote for let's keep talking with each other, not to each.

Anyway, about corporations and responsibility, I think the fundamental complaint is that they're currently above the law in many respects, and we'd all like to deal with it, preferably 18 years ago to keep Bush II out of the White House.

In my pseudo-historical and pseudo-intellectual take (meaning I'm taking a break from reading a really boring document), this is basically the problem of the rich, over time, getting too rich, while everybody else gets so poor that they're selling their kin to pay the interest on their grandfather's debts and such. Actually, no, we're not there yet, that was Babylon. It's an inherent problem in civilization, apparently: even if everybody is equal (and we're not, we're all idiots about something), a few people do better than others, by some combination of chance and skill (the former is always undervalued), while others fail and have to be bailed out with a loan or such. This sets up a situation where, absent a war or plague, resources flow away from the poor and towards the wealthy, until either there's a successful uprising that results in resources moving away from the corpses of the rich, or there's a redistribution to make the wealthy a bit less wealthy while "leveling the playing field." Things like bloody wars, plagues depopulating whole continents, and so forth all help change the rules on when the reset is needed, but it seems that any undisturbed civilization over time becomes so unequal that it either gets a reboot or it breaks. Or some combination of both. The only exceptions I can think of got broken up by outside forces.

This is where the old idea of the jubilee comes in. It's a structured reboot, where all debts are forgiven, everybody pretends they live in something like a egalitarian utopia for a year, and then they reallocate farmland and start the whole mess over again. Do that every 50 years or so, and in theory you can keep the poorest farmers from selling their daughters into slavery to, as the prayer says, "forgive them their debts."

How does this relate to corporate personhood? Ultimately we're trying to rein in corporations and make it possible to redistribute their money using the tool of the law. While it's fun to believe that a simple tweak in the law will make everything right, I'm just a bit suspicious. Could it really be so simple, and the only obstacle is that the corporations are spending massive amounts of lobbying money preventing it from happening? Or is the solution something that's complicated, boring and totally unsuitable for a blog? (Sort of like that stupid document I've got to get back to reading.) I don't want to derail the thread, but it may be worth thinking about when it's time to enjoy kicking a flimsy idea around like a hacky sack, and when it's okay to get annoyed about it.


Oh well, if you want a new topic, I give you Ross 128B. If it's habitable, it would be like Edgar Rice Burrough's Venus, where it needs clouds to keep it habitable...

Okay, red dwarf primary, flares, yadda yadda. What else?


Oh well, if you want a new topic, I give you Ross 128B. If it's habitable, it would be like Edgar Rice Burrough's Venus, where it needs clouds to keep it habitable by cranking the ol' albedo...

Okay, red dwarf primary, flares, yadda yadda. What else?


The thing about the whole corporate personhood idea is that corporations manifestly aren't people. I can see how having a legal entity that can sign contracts, etc is useful, but that legal entity doesn't need all the rest of what goes along with being a human person.

I've been thinking about things like putting pensions first in bankruptcy (and other tweaks) and realized that all of them boil down to prioritizing flesh-and-blood persons over fictitious-but-legal persons. And then thinking that the "fictitious" part of that is pretty important, and that corporations shouldn't be protected by human rights. (Legal protections, sure, but not human rights protections.)

Maybe we need to look again at chartered companies? Society chartered a company to do something that was generally considered beneficial to society, and if the company ceased to do that then it lost the charter.

Thinking about Hugh's original point, maybe viewing a corporation as a person is like viewing technology as magic — a useful metaphor, but causes problems if taken literally.


Heteromeles, please delete this if inappropriate.

Well we already have these laws in Australia. Well Queensland, which is part of Australia.

"In this Act — association means any of the following—
(a) a corporation;
(b) an unincorporated association;
(c) a club or league;
(d) any other group of 3 or more persons by whatever name called, whether associated formally or informally and whether the group is legal or illegal."

"office bearer, of an association, means—
(a) a person who is a president, vice-president, sergeant-at-arms, treasurer, secretary, director or another office bearer or a shareholder of the association"

Note that this goes all the way down to **SHARE HOLDER**

So if you're sprung doing one of the illegal things, and you're an office holder, an extra 25 years mandatory sentence served without parole must be added to whatever you get for your initial illegal activity. One of the illegal activities listed is money laundering.

So, I'll leave you to guess how many CBA employees and shareholders have been given 25 years without parole for money laundering.


Oh as well as money laundering... "Austrac, the financial intelligence regulator, claims CBA failed to monitor or report large cash transactions, including millions of dollars being laundered by drug smugglers."

See also the declared offence:

"Drugs Misuse Act 1986
section 7 (Receiving or possessing property obtained from trafficking or supplying)"


As I was saying: corporations, as we know them today, in the US, are based on, um, activist judges in the 1860's and 1870;s, They are, however, *economic* entities. As such, I see no inherent reason that they should have any expectation of free political speech.

The year after Citizens United, a PR firm, I believe it was, tried to register to run for office as an artificial person, and was bounced in court.

So, let's discuss this... and for the wealthy, who think they should have free political speech, then they should have the vote, too. At which point, I take my savings, and hit up gofundme, buy a number of heavy-duty servers, fire up many, many AIs on them in VMs, incorporate each as an artificial person... and demand the vote, in (US) that county, state and federal elections. Lessee, bet I could get 100,000 votes for me really easy....

And Moz and others: no, not shareholders, esp. small ones. In that group would be people in mutual funds. Nope: the corporate execs, real live persons, made the decisions to have the company perform criminal actions. As the quote from, I think, a prosecutor in the war crimes trials of the Nazis put it, "we didn't charge the soldaten, we went after their officers who ordered them.' So, Chief whatever officers, President, all upper execs, and the Board of Directors (possibly as accomplices).


When I was 19? 20? in '69, I had this wonderful job as a lab tech. We had a number of research projects. After the better part of a year, I told my boss that I did not want to work on the project funded by the US DoD for ceramic armor to be used on chppers in 'Nam. I have never since worked on "defense" projects. Where I am now, working for a US gov't federal contractor, I'm civilian sector, thankyouverymuch.

If it was the middle of WWII, I'd think about it, but *nothing* since then. And mostly, other than maybe the US Civil War, for a long time before that.


At which point, I take my savings, and hit up gofundme, buy a number of heavy-duty servers, fire up many, many AIs on them in VMs, incorporate each as an artificial person... and demand the vote, in (US) that county, state and federal elections. Lessee, bet I could get 100,000 votes for me really easy....
This became a potential thing when virtual corporations became a thing.
There are a host of amusing (if one is easily amused, else nuke it from orbit) emergent problems, but my favorite is that, in the US the census (every 10 years mod 10==0) determines the number of members of the House of Representatives that a state has. If corporations became voters, there would be a race to be the state with the most virtual corporations, and it would quickly get profoundly absurd, with mathematicians being the arbiters of who gets all the members of the House of Representatives except for the 49 reps 1 each for the other states. Would it be Delaware? Vermont (already has some virtual corporation stuff)? etc. Some entity would have created all but a relatively infinitesimal number, and so they would win all the power.
I think. Haven't given it much thought because it would not be allowed to unfold.


Is anyone seriously suggesting that corporations should get votes? That's amusing, but it seems like it's probably a straw man.


It's helpful to step back and reconsider the original purposes of "limited liability" in the context of corporations: it was emphatically not intended to protect criminals. The goal was (as others have noted) to create a convenient legal framework to facilitate contracts and to protect managers of insanely complex systems (e.g., multinationals, most systems that interact with the real world or virtual world) from errors they could not reasonably be expected to prevent.

The problem is that the balance has been progressively distorted over time as the original goals have been forgotten. Now, the fundamental impact of this economic fiction is that it protects rich criminals from the consequences of their sociopathic behavior. Legal decisions such as People United have further extended this fiction to an unreasonable extent.

The balance needs to be restored by reverting to the original principles of protecting those who must act in complex situations without protecting criminals. Not a trivial exercise, but one that is crucial.


Is anyone seriously suggesting that corporations should get votes?

Is anyone seriously suggesting that there is a category of person who should be allowed to sign contracts, pay taxes etc but not allowed to vote?

The lines around "corporate personhood" are fuzzy and quite silly, but I suspect many will remain willingly blind to just how bonkers until we get something like an AI forms a corporation and buys a small nation.


Although I do wonder there would be any advantage in doing that when it's ridiculously easy for corporations to exercise their "one dollar one vote" rights...


Is anyone seriously suggesting that corporations should get votes?

Only in libertarian science fiction. As Heteromeles noted back in comment 139, the "corporations are people so have freedom of speech" ruling is extremely dubious and hasn't really been tested. My understanding is that the idea of limiting the amount of funds a corporation can spend on/donate to political candidates, well established in other Western countrie, had become popular enough in the USA that legislation had either just been passed or seemed likely to. But if corporations are people with freedom of speech, limiting their campaigning is against the constitution.

So ruling made, corporations have no limit on spending for their favourite politicians. Neither Democrats nor Republicans in the USA seem very upset by this.


I'll leave you to guess how many CBA employees and shareholders have been given 25 years without parole for money laundering.

Yes, the gap between de jure and de facto law rears its ugly head again. It continues to surprise me that the dual citizenship section of our white-australia laws are being enforced against MPs. Its a neat demonstration of why a constitution is a good idea as well as of the need to write it carefully. Normally in this situation MPs would very quickly change the law to make whatever they want to do legal (allowances, anyone?) and move right along with no fuss. Instead....


Speaking as a small shareholder (directly owned shares, those owned through pension funds or unit trusts not considered) I'd like to make some relevant points:-

1) "Limited Liability" does not relate to criminal law but only to bankruptcy law. If $PLC goes bankrupt the shareholder's personal liability for those debts is limited to the face value of their shares; this is typically 0.01 of the main currency unit of the nation per share, so if you held 100 shares in the UK bankrupt your personal liability would be £1.00.

2) Shareholders are not personally liable for the actions of $PLC under criminal law, unless the individual shareholder is also an officer of the company with direct or managerial responsibility for the activity that the prosecution is brought for. In this event their liability is as an officer of the company and not as a shareholder.


I believe you misunderstood the point I was making: I was doing a "you get what you asked for, not what you wanted", like any good computer...

I do NOT believe that artificial persons, aka corporations, have *ANY* right or expectation of free political speech, and that should be shut down so hard that their stocks fall.

And any corporation that does, should have it's sr. execs in jail.

Is that clearer?


You write: So ruling made, corporations have no limit on spending for their favourite politicians. Neither Democrats nor Republicans in the USA seem very upset by this.
Sorry, that's a "both sides do it" argument, which is demonstrably false. There are a large percentage of Dems who *really* dislike this: off the top of my head, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Republicans? Um, could you name one or two?

Charlie, I apologize, this has gotten *very* US-centric, and we're not near 300.


> Is anyone seriously suggesting that there is a category of person who should be allowed to sign contracts, pay taxes etc but not allowed to vote?

It seems to me that a lot of people are seriously suggesting exactly that, and also that this is the status quo we have right now.

If you want to make an argument that it is inherently bad or inconsistent to say some entity should be allowed to sign contracts but not allowed to vote, I will be happy to read it.

But "letting corporations vote would be disastrous" does not obviously imply "letting corporations sign contracts is bad".


I'm not convinced that letting corporations vote would be a significant problem for democracy. After all, a typical large corporation (i.e., the scary kind) has thousands to hundred thousands of employees. One vote for the corporation would be a drop in the sea of employee votes.

The real problem occurs when individuals (e.g., a corporation's president) use the corporation's money rather than their own money to influence how a politician votes (e.g., lobbying, other forms of bribery, campaign funding). The larger the corporation, the more leverage this gives the individual over the rest of us. Sure, we can band together and attempt to match that individual, but it's not easy to do.

On a semi-related note, I consider it ridiculous that in Canada, I can't write off all of my medical expenses against income. (I can only write off a % of the total for expenses that exceed a % of my total income). In a bad health/good income year, with a couple thousand dollars of medical expenses, I earn enough that my medical deduction drops to zero. Yet I can write off any political contributions with no income-based limit. Hardly seems like a just solution to me.


As whitroth pointed out, the primary problem with letting corporations vote isn't the corporations that exist right now, it's all the new tiny corporations that would be created for the sole purpose of amplifying their owner's vote.

Assuming you could magically prevent that, then yes, it would probably not be a huge problem (though I'd guess it's still worse than not).


Is anyone seriously suggesting that there is a category of person who should be allowed to sign contracts, pay taxes etc but not allowed to vote?

Certainly. Foreigners and convicted felons come to mind in the US as non-voting persons, although the latter is a bit fuzzy, because some of felons can get reinstated.


I'm not convinced that letting corporations vote would be a significant problem for democracy. After all, a typical large corporation (i.e., the scary kind) has thousands to hundred thousands of employees. One vote for the corporation would be a drop in the sea of employee votes.

And how long would it take before someone registered enough corporations to swing the vote in key ridings? Costs $200 to register a corporation in Canada, but once registered you'd be able to use it in any election you wanted (it's easy to move the headquarters around). That's $200 for an immortal voter…


Thanks to those who pointed out the problem of registering myriads of virtual corporations purely for the sake of using them to vote.

Yup, that's a big problem... so big I completely missed it.


Actually, I don't think that it's a big problem. The best way to control a committee or our so-called representative democracy is NOT to pack the electorate with sock puppets, but to ensure that you control the agenda, rules of procedure, and the available propaganda, er, information. This is now SOP in the USA and UK, at all levels.

The problem with UK (and, I believe, most USA) corporation law is that they have the rights of people, but neither the responsibilities nor the legal constraints. It's not just no body to kick and no soul to damn, but the fact that they are protected by the law and government from any effective control.


Elderly Cynic suggested that the notion of corporate sock puppets voting might not be so bad.

In the end, it comes down to details of the specific election. Elections are sometimes won by a margin of only a few thousand votes. If the figure of $200 to register a Canadian company is accurate, you could buy 1000 sock puppet votes for $200K, which is a bargain. (And as a business expense, the cost is probably 100% tax deductible.) If a particular riding is crucial and the outcome is expected to be close, this number of votes could make a big difference in the outcome.

EC: "The best way to control a committee or our so-called representative democracy is NOT to pack the electorate with sock puppets, but to ensure that you control the agenda, rules of procedure, and the available propaganda"

These are all valid strategies, but in the U.S., voter exclusion (both passive and active), gerrymandering, and demotivating your opponent's voters have proven to be more broadly effective. Not to mention supporting an "independent" candidate who exists only to steal votes from your opponent. Not to mention tampering with the vote tallies, which will become increasingly popular. (Cory Doctorow et al. have reported an endless litany of stories of how easy it is to hack American voting machines.)


Why do you worry about voting machine tampering? In at least one Wisconsin election a few years ago, the County Clerk in charge of the election tallied votes in an excel spreadsheet with no password and no audit or anyone else even watching what she entered. She's a strong republican too.


Heteromeles wondered: "Why do you worry about voting machine tampering?"

Because the machines are becoming more common and popular, and (so far as I can tell from what's been written) seem to be easily hackable without leaving any audit trail. The larger the audience being polled, the more efficient (thus desirable) it is to use machines rather than verifiable records. The only check seems to be a comparison of the exit polls versus the recorded vote. Not very reliable.

Here in Canada, each polling station is supposed to* have votes counted by 2 people, supervised by representatives of the candidates, and if there are any discrepancies, the *paper* ballots are rechecked until everyone agrees.

* That's official policy, and seems to be widely followed. But I'm sure there are exceptions. No system's perfect.


[ IF you have the rugged determination to see it through, I may add ]
Here in the uK we had a very bad case of election fraud & rigging that was first spotted through simple recognition of suspicious counts & probable multiple-voting ( "personation" ).
After an awul lot of fuss, because the complainers were "Evil waycists!", & a certain amount of dodging the local Plod ( who had been part-bought by the said corruptly-elected officals ) it was proven, by simply counting & checking against the physical register of voters, that the actual votes were not as supposedly "counted" & that a certain group, led by a spectacularly corrupt ("religious" *cough*) "leader" were not in accordance with the law or equity or anything ...
Tower Hamlets council & their utterly corrupt "leader" got reamed, I'm very glad to say.
[ But it was difficult, because said corrupt leader kept claiming "islamophobia" all the way to the court doors, & very few people were prepared to stand against that threat, for fear of being labelled "waycist". ]
As someone who knows the history of (some of) the jews in the E end of London , I found that sickening.
Especially as said corrupt "leader" had it in for jews ....


Because it requires a much smaller conspiracy. To fuck with a manual count, you need to own the polling system more or less outright. To fuck over electronic voting, well, one dedicated and skilled individual with nothing better to use the four years between elections on would suffice. So it is much, much more likely to happen.


Really? So far as I can tell, the Republicans win Wisconsin by a few counties and tiny little margins every single time. That's one reason why they're the target of the Supreme Court gerrymander suit right now. My guess, based on what I know of Wisconsin's governor, is that a few people wiggle a few votes on an Excel sheet here and there. It's a lot easier that way.


In one of the less populous US states [1], before either punchcard ballots or other semi-automated voting systems had become locally popular, vote tallying at the precinct level typically was done on Election Night by teams of five people:
* one to read out loud (from the individual paper ballot) the name of the selected candidate;
* two more to each keep an independent written tally of the number of votes cast for each candidate; and
* two more to observe that the first three were accurately stating, and recording, the results from each ballot.

When there were a large number of offices on the ballot [2], the votes for each office were normally tallied in a separate "pass" through a stack of ballots, starting at the top and working our way down the list of offices. (In a year when there were 20 to 30 individual elective offices on the ballot, the paper ballots were frequently referred to as "bedsheet ballots".)

Typically, the ballots cast at that precinct would be separated into stacks of 25 to 50 each, so that if there was a discrepancy in the tallying of the votes from any stack, it would take a relatively modest amount of additional time to go through the stack again, as many times as necessary to reach agreement on the correct number of votes for each candidate listed.

My perception, as an occasional participant in the tallying process, was that it was somewhat clumsy and inefficient, and vulnerable to minor errors, but not easy to subvert at wholesale levels. There was an effort, at least by each of the major political parties, to place at least one of their members (and preferably at least two) on each five-person counting team. More modern tallying methods strike me as likely to be somewhat more precise when they work as intended, but easier to subvert at wholesale levels.

[1] Montana
[2] National, statewide executive branch and supreme court, state legislature (from county-wide or smaller districts), county officials, city officials, etc.


Re: 'Corporations - no limit on spending for their favourite politicians.'

Also no limit on avoiding paying taxes. Alas, no point wishing for 'no representation without taxation' to be enshrined.

More seriously - does anyone know who the 'bagmen' are for the various parties? Because according to some reports about US pols it seems that once elected, these pols are required to sit at a call center, make calls to a list of potential donors and can only leave once they've achieved their quota. So - who set this up, how much money is being raised, how much of this money is actually going to the 'party' for election ads, and how much is being siphoned off into someone else's pockets (whose)? Does the IRS ever audit these practices? Seems that internal party doings are not subject to scrutiny even though their results affect the elected pols as well as the electorates they supposedly represent. If these folks worked at a company and spent 25-50% of their time working on someone else's projects, they'd get their asses fired. Don't understand why does the US electorate allow such misbehavior from its politicians.

'In the 2014 election, the U.S. House and Senate raised a combined $1.7 billion, ...

Politicians spend a lot of time fundraising — up to 25 to 50% of their time in Washington is spent raising money for their campaigns, a percentage that Oliver considers “horrifying.”'


All of which would be flat illegal & probably jailable in Britain & probably most of Europe, too.
So much for US "democracy"


So much for US "democracy"

It's the best democracy money can buy.

(someone had to say it)


Nah, we're the Cadillac of democracies. Big, expensive, hard to steer, polluting, and prone to odd breakdowns, and only afloat due to questionable investments and hidden subsidies.


I was thinking it's more the gold standards of democracy: superficially attractive to the uniformed, hoarded and worshiped by a band of crazy-looking weirdos whose views make perfect sense from inside the bubble; but archaic and irrelevant to the modern world and more useful as raw materials for other projects than as an end in itself.

Amusingly the religious wrong are now talking about inflicting a bill of rights on Australia. They've lost the "marriage not for gays" battle and are feeling oppressed. Our Attorney-General and his "right to be a bigot" are under siege!

Sadly the proposals all look set to backfire if the Christians are right. Their goal is apparently to allow people to be fired, denied housing, refused service etc in the basis of religious belief. For example by someone who hates that despised and persecuted minority... Christians.


Re: Cadillac of democracies

You forgot: and no longer 'made in the USofA'.

Cadillacs like pretty well all fossil fuel US-brand cars are -- at most -- assembled in the US. Even a lot of the design has been outsourced.


Arrgh, UN-INFORMED, not uniformed.

I see that one second after hitting submit (please master, I beg of you, let me submit). Now I just have to wait while the machine times out it's "one comment per minute" or whatever.

Speaking about uniforms, I keep thinking of the "in the USA only the national government is considered government, we never think of the states as having governments, let alone counting local councils as government" discussion and it just weirds me right out. The Governator doesn't govern? I vote someone else tells him that, I'm too chicken.

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This page contains a single entry by Hugh Hancock published on November 10, 2017 3:27 PM.

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