Friday, January 27, 2012

6. Keep an eye on the bigger picture

No, the catchphrase is not mine: it is part of the script of Exit through the Gift Shop, one of those contemporary crazes on graffiti and the secrecy of the underground; but it serves my purpose this time, for the series of paradoxes is far from being over.

My eye has been caught in the intricate maze of a classic. And, while giving me food for thought, it set the scene for some detective work - on your behalf.
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Fill in the following gaps with one word from the table below. There are five words you do not need to use.
[Note: Any comment on the film, or on the message of this synopsis are welcome, but publishing a version of your gap-filling activity is counter-productive. The full text will be published in just a few days' time].

  The Conversation
                                          Fill in the following gaps with one word from the table below. There are five words you do not need to use.
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Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a paranoid surveillance expert running his 1. ___________ company. Caul is obsessed with his own privacy; his apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door, he uses pay phones to make calls and claims to have 2. _________ home telephone, and his office is enclosed in wire mesh in a corner of a much larger warehouse. Caul is utterly professional at 3. _________, but he finds personal contact difficult. He is exquisitely uncomfortable in dense crowds and withdrawn and taciturn in 4. _________ intimate situations; he is also reticent and secretive with work colleagues. He is nondescript in appearance, 5. ________ for his habit of wearing a translucent plastic raincoat virtually everywhere he goes, even when it is not raining. 6. _________ his insistence that his professional code means that he is not 7. _________ for worrying about the actual content of the conversations he records or the uses to which his clients put his surveillance activities, he is in 8. _________ wracked by guilt over a past wiretap job that left three persons dead; his sense of guilt is sharpened by his devout Catholicism. His one hobby is playing along with his favourite jazz records on a tenor saxophone in the 9. _________ of his apartment.

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Caul has taken on the task of 10. _________ a couple's conversation as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco. This challenging task is accomplished, but Caul feels increasingly agonized over his 11. _________ about the actual meaning of the conversation and about what may happen to the couple once the client hears the tape. He plays the tape again and again 12. _________ the movie, refining its accuracy (by catching one key — though crucially ambiguous — phrase 13. _________ under the sound of a street musician: "He'd kill us if he got the chance") and constantly reinterpreting its meaning in the light of 14. _________ he knows and what he guesses. Caul avoids handing in the tape to the aide of the man who commissioned the surveillance; he then finds himself 15. _________ increasing pressure from the aide and is himself followed, tricked, and listened in on, the tape eventually 16. _________ from him in a moment when his guard is down. Caul's appalled efforts to forestall tragedy ultimately fail — because, it turns 17. _________, the conversation doesn't mean what he thought it 18. _________, and the tragedy he anticipated isn't the one that eventually happens. In the final scene of the film, Caul discovers that his own apartment is 19. _________ and gradually takes it to pieces in an unsuccessful effort to discover the bug, eventually destroying everything there (even, 20. _________ a moment of hesitation, his plastic figurine of the Madonna) except for his beloved tenor saxophone: at the film's end he's left sitting amidst the wreck, blowing a solo.
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AFTER            DOUBTS        HIDDEN                 OWN                         STOLEN
APART            EVEN             MONITORING       PERSONAL             THROUGH
BUGGED        EXCEPT        MORE                       PRIVACY                 UNDER
DESPITE        FACT              NO                             RESPONSIBLE      WHAT
DID                  FEARS           OUT                          ROBBED                  WORK

Whether it's worth commenting upon, well, it's for you to decide.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

5. To choose, or not to choose, to do something -

- That's the paradox!

The topic was already announced in the previous post.
Now it's time to read.
And listen.
And [try to] understand.
          FUTURES NATURE |Vol 436|7 July 2005

What’s expected of us

 A predictor
It’s a tough choice…
                                                                   Ted Chiang
"This is a warning. 
Please read carefully.

By now you’ve probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you’re reading this. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they’re playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it’s easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can’t. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterwards, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There’s no way to fool a Predictor.

The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay — it sends a signal back in time. The full implications of the technology will become apparent later, when negative delays of greater than a second are achieved, but that’s not what this warning is about. The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will.

There have always been arguments showing that free will is an illusion, some based on hard physics, others based on pure logic. Most people agree these arguments are irrefutable, but no one ever really accepts the conclusion. The experience of having free will is too powerful for an argument to overrule. What it takes is a demonstration, and that’s what a Predictor provides.

Cat's Eye Nebula

Typically, a person plays with a Predictor compulsively for several days, showing it to friends, trying various schemes to outwit the device. The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means — over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.

Some people, realizing that their choices don’t matter, refuse to make any choices at all. Like a legion of Bartleby the Scriveners, they no longer engage in spontaneous action. Eventually, a third of those who play with a Predictor must be hospitalized because they won’t feed themselves. The end state is akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma. They’ll track motion with their eyes, and change position occasionally, but nothing more. The ability to move remains, but the motivation is gone.

Before people started playing with Predictors, akinetic mutism was very rare, a result of damage to the anterior cingulate region of the brain. Now it spreads like a cognitive plague. People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we’ve all encountered: the idea that free will doesn’t exist. It just wasn’t harmful until you believed it.

Doctors try arguing with the patients while they still respond to conversation. We had all been living happy, active lives before, they reason, and we hadn’t had free will then either. Why should anything change? “No action you took last month was any more freely chosen than one you take today,” a doctor might say. “You can still behave that way now.” The patients invariably respond, “But now I know.” And some of them never say anything again.

Some will argue that the fact the Predictor causes this change in behaviour means that we do have free will. An automaton cannot become discouraged, only a free-thinking entity can.

The fact that some individuals descend into akinetic mutism whereas others do not just highlights the importance of making a choice. Unfortunately, such reasoning is faulty: every form of behaviour is compatible with determinism. One dynamic system might fall into a basin of attraction and wind up at a fixed point, whereas another exhibits chaotic behaviour indefinitely, but both are completely deterministic.

I’m transmitting this warning to you from just over a year in your future: it’s the first lengthy message received when circuits with negative delays in the mega-second range are used to build communication devices. Other messages will follow, addressing other issues. My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.

René Magritte. The False Mirror

And yet I know that, because free will is an illusion, it’s all predetermined who will descend into akinetic mutism and who won’t. There’s nothing anyone can do about it — you can’t choose the effect the Predictor has on you. Some of you will succumb and some of you won’t, and my sending this warning won’t alter those proportions. 

So why did I do it?
Because I had no choice."
  • Listen to the audio short story here:
Audio What's Expected of Us                                                                                                               
Ted Chiang is an occasional writer of science fiction. His work can be found in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others, published by Pan Macmillan.
© 2005 Nature Publishing Group