Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 6, 2 August 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Don't Read This!

The right of Vaclav Pinkava to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act, 1998

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, nor stored in any information storage and retrieval system, yet known or hither to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher or under licence from the Copyright Licensing Agency Limited...

Within the UK, exceptions are allowed in respect of any fair dealing for the purpose of research or private study, or criticism, or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1998...

This article is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar...

Got that?

Remember any of it?

You have just breached copyright.

Is the copyright protection clause part of the publication? Yes. Is the title a part of the article? Yes. Does ignorance of the law excuse breaking the law? No. So, by the time you've read just the heading, even before you chose to ignore it and read on, just by commiting D O N ' T to memory, letter by letter, to make out the word - just by living, my friend - you breached copyright (assuming that is an information system between your ears, netted out of our common gene pool).

Copyright is a sham, really. Years ago, you had to go through the effort to perform, to recite or play live, like Homer. Now, all the technology is there, provided by techno-holics anonymous, and an assertion to be identified as an author is merely some genetic replicant, using the language of its ancestors, its parents, its teachers - laying claim to a slice of significance in space-time.

Language itself is not considered copyright, but why not? It is considered a birthright. A Human Right. Yet it is borrowed; it, too, is part of any publication, as is the typeface, and so, well, to quote the American playwright, Wilson Mizner, "if you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."

Are you feeling a little kicked out of conventional thinking? I hope so.

We speak of "booting up" a computer. This has nothing to do with kicking the damn thing, but is a reference to "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps," which, whilst an English idiom, is a technical impossibility. It falls into the same category of technical impossibilities which delight us in cartoon films, such as when a man propels the sailboat he's in by blowing at the sail, or when the vacuum cleaner catches hold of itself and disappears.

What a computer actually does when you switch it on, is to execute an "interrupt" (pulling down the voltage on a line to chip), causing it to execute some instructions stored in non-volatile memory, which load some other instructions and run them, and so on, until it wakes up completely. On any personal computer this process seems to take a several minutes, the number being a universal constant, from the days when the processor could not outpace your wristwatch to a zillion gigahertz Zentium. I don't know why.

As a process, booting up an information system is akin to tying a rope ladder to a rope to a string to a line to a thread to an arrow, which you shoot across the top of a tree, and after hauling everything across, climb comfortably up the tree. Try that across the Grand Canyon, and you hit a snag. Nope, it isn't the distance. Gravity isn't going to help you. You need an accomplice who already got across, some other way.

Imagine a huge dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopaedia written in a language you don't understand. Even if the dictionary was also a book on grammar, even if it contained all the definitions of the entire language, even if it were all cross-referenced in hypertext links, you would not stand a chance of understanding any of it, unless it resembled something you knew, enough to get started. (Pretty much how I feel about Hungarian).

An example of a system which is functionally complete but pretty closed to the outside is the law. There is a nice story by Kafka, about a man trying to find Justice. He comes to a door, and the doorman says he cannot go in. "What if I try anyway?" he says. "Nobody else ever asked that." So in he goes. He goes through lots of such doors, same story, and finally comes to a door where he asks another question. "Why are there no other people outside this door? Doesn't anyone else seek Justice?" "This particular door is here just for you," comes the reply, before the doorman swings it shut and locks it. Typical Kafka. Brrrr.

Look at any legal contract, or the legal Code itself, and you realise you are only scratching the surface. The context is in the reader's mind, not on the page. Every word assumes you know its meaning, every definition assumes general knowledge way off the subject.

Now that the Internet is so huge, some already see it as an abstract brain full of knowledge, which may, one day, acquire consciousness. Like yesterday. Maybe. Or maybe without the browsers (the real people) the web is just a load of meaningless electrical impulses, wasted energy, an amusement park for electrons. Judge for yourselves.

Judgement is application of understanding. Understanding is a reset, a gearshift through gained knowledge. Knowledge is assimilated information. Information is the timely and relevant matching of answers to questions, feeding gaping mouths of fledgling interest with squiggles of data. Data is filtered, pre-digested, categorised observation. Observation is perceived fact. Perception is fallible and fact is spurious without context, without knowledge, without understanding. Without judgement.

Human judgement is prone to error.

There is a book I can heartily recommend on this subject, Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic and Amos Tversky. Cambridge University Press 1982, reprinted, um, a lot. ISBN 0-521-24064-6 in hardback, or 0-521-28414-7 paperback.

I was given the book by my kid brother, Pavel, a theoretical physics PhD and financial "rocket scientist" - in an attempt to compensate me for the crate of my Champagne he and his friends drank while I was out of the country.

Judgement under Uncertainty is not a book to paraphrase. Every journalist, every politician, every designer of a nuclear power station ought to read it first hand. It is full of sobering examples of how our minds work.

Take the statistical principle first stated as Galtons Law of Regression to the Mean, a century ago. In paraphrase, I write a range of articles, good, bad, indifferent (relatively speaking). Following a great article, I am likely to write a worse one, and following a bad one, I am likely to improve. If my editor tells me my article was great, he'll feel that his encouragement backfired. More often than not, a rebuke will show dividends - without my having paid the slightest attention to him. And if he then gets feedback on his feedback to me, his performance as my manager, from his boss, his financial backer, say, his behaviour will eventually consolidate around reprimanding the bad, rather than wasting time praising the good. And so on up. That is where the Wrath of God comes from - an all too human construction.

But whether that lesson applies to you is a matter for your judgement.

Just remember it when commenting on Central Europeans, or anybody else.

Still uncertain? Buy the book.

Exceptionally, it does not carry the full copyright bull. It has 35 chapters, all different. Heavy reading, for us humans.

Oh, and one more thing - that stuff in italics at the top was copied from somewhere else, so ignore it.

Now - or, rather, after 16 August 1999 - read on!

Vaclav Pinkava, 2 August 1999




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