OD20171122 or Don’t You Just Love Kaleidoscopes?

optical diversion 20171122 – a little thing I whipped up with Adobe After Effects and Premier. music is 7th Floor Tango by Silent Partner from YouTube’s Free Audio Library.
Press Play and go away for 2 minutes 21 seconds

social commentary

Web hunches past court bans

reputational_damageEver have a hunch?

You suspect (or feel you know) something that you don’t really have a solid basis to ‘know’. A conclusion that your mind has come to all on its own that ‘feels correct’ but you can’t show a logical chain of deduction to arrive at.

Generally we believe that at some level we’ve collected enough data that some part of our mind can make an ‘educated guess’ at an answer to whatever the question might be. What causes something, who did something, why something happened – whatever the question du jour might be.

Well now we find that the web has hunches too . . . and that’s bad for a number of reasons.

A few years back I wrote a one page Christmas story for a community newspaper. In that story the early warning system protecting us from ballistic missile attack is given a way of tapping into the subconscious feelings of the population. A way of listening to the hunches of millions of people in the hopes that this might give it an edge on detecting any sneak attack happening before it gets too real to stop. And in that story the people tasked with being on guard are so close focused on the task at hand that they don’t realize that the missile tracks it shows are actually Santa heading out of the North Pole to millions of sleeping households on Christmas. And we come close to making a terrible mistake.

Recently I read a news article that shows something similar is happening. Sort of.

Here in Canada the news media can be banned from reporting on certain things for periods of time. We’d rather not have voters on the west coast know what voters in the east chose before the west has closed the voting booths. And courts regularly impose bans to protect the innocent from exposure and the trial process from being corrupted. Even after a court case is done the ban may stay in place if it might expose a child / youth victim to unfair public scrutiny.

Apparently that’s now not good enough anymore.

If enough people suspect someone of being involved and they go to their favorite search engine and type that person’s name and the crime into the search box then the search algorithm will take that into account in the results it provides to later searchers. And those search results will then show the crime reports in the search results for that person’s name.

Let’s say there’s a child molestation case involving a primary school. A popular teacher is being charged with sexual interference with a number of children. Let’s say their name is X. Because of the children the court will ban reporting X’s name and possibly the name of the school as well.

Let’s say the news story breaks on the weekend, a Saturday. Only those directly involved know the particulars. Some parents might tell other parents, friends and relatives what they know but they aren’t media outlets publishing anything that violates the ban. But word gets around and curious people more removed from the case are getting rumors. And being curious they go to the web to find out more.

Initially a search of X’s name alone won’t yield results that link to the crime but by Monday a lot of people are searching for news reports using the crime and X’s name. After many thousands of searches like that the search engine has noticed that these two items are linked together. So by the end of the week someone searching using just X’s name will see reports of the crime appearing in the result lists. Even though none of the news reports linked to will not have X’s name anywhere in them.

The news report I read regarding this comes from the Ottawa Citizen. There’s a follow up from a few days later.

As the report points out the same linkage can also take place for the names of victims if enough search attempts linking them are fed into the search engine.

Whether this is a fixable problem is debatable. In Europe they forced Google to alter it’s search results to ‘forget’ about someone’s past. There are other ramifications as well . . .

There is a small industry out there that makes a living helping people recover their ‘good name’ after some reputational damage.

Let’s say you were X in the above case. Furthermore let’s say you were found to be innocent but because you had been charged and the search engines are associating your name with the case your reputation is damaged badly. What can you do?

If you can afford it you can hire one these firms to help repair that. They will go through a process of flooding the web with ‘good things’ about you. Eventually these instances of good will push the instances of bad way down the list of results so that they won’t appear in the first few pages. And since most people don’t keep digging past page 3 or 4 that works more or less.

It’s almost the same process that put X’s name in the results to begin with but in reverse. Then again if you wanted to destroy someone that same process can be used to damage a reputation as well. The more well known the target the more likely that salacious, speculative, rumors will result in this kind of damage. New tech makes for new opportunities and not all of them are desirable.


On Watch


“Sir! We have an unidentified track coming out of the north!” The sudden voice jarred Royce back from his day dream.

“What’s that Lieutenant?” he shot back. “Clarify!”

“Sir! The M-Scan system ‘is showing an unidentified track rising from north of the Arctic Circle.”

Around the room, worried eyes looked back and forth between Captain Royce and their work station screens.

“No – make that two – now it’s four!” the kid was sounding frightened.

“Sarge! Bump up the threat sign one level. Get me SAC on the horn.” Royce turned around and called to a young woman two aisles over: “Crandall!

“Not a thing sir!” was her reply.

Royce shot back with, “Get some self tests going and check with the Individual DEW Line stations while that’s happening!” He turned back to the M-Scan station and gave Lieutenant Murphy, who was watching him instead of his screens, a questioning look. The Lieutenant swung his gaze back and Royce watched as his jaw dropped.

“What’s the problem Murphy?” Murphy’s jaw was working but nothing was coming out.

“Spit it out son! What do you see?” Royce was almost out of his chair when Murphy finally shouted back: “Dozens sir! Hundreds of tracks! They’re heading all over… and they’re all coming from the same polar area! What are they?” the fright was clear in his voice.

“Radar?” Royce called. “Nothing Sir!” came the reply.

“Space! What are our birds telling you?” He asked the noncom who was running the Near Space Threat Detection System. “Nothing sir! was the answer.

“Sir! SAC’s on the line for you. General Thornby.”

“General we have a rapidly developing situation here.”

Royce cupped the mouthpiece and yelled to the Sergeant “Bump Threat up one more level, Sarge!”

“What’s happening, Captain Royce?” the General was brisk. “We have no threat indicators at our end…”

“It’s the M-Scan system, Sir. It’s reporting multiple threat tracks coming from the pole. But no radar readings to confirm and Space sees nothing either.”

“Only that M-Scan doohickey?”

“Roger that sir. We’re not sure why.”

“That’s the system that taps into the ‘interplants’, isn’t it?” the General asked.

“Yes sir. It uses anticipated event analysis to poll the interweb implants in people’s heads. It’s regarded as being an extra level of security for threats that the big hardware can’t pick-up on but that people sense is there.”

“And it’s seeing multiple tracks leading out of the North Pole?”

Royce shot a questioning look at the M-Scan station.

The Lieutenant gave a ‘hands lifted shrug’ and mouthed ‘Thousands’.

“It’s in the thousands now sir. And they’re heading out across the globe.”

“Not just at us?” the General asked.

“No Sir! Everywhere.”

“And this is coming from a system that taps into the expectations of events in the minds of the population?”

‘That’s right, Sir.

Royce turned away to tell the Sergeant to bump Threat level up again. When he turned back he could hear chuckling coming from the receiver.

“Sir?” he asked. “ls there some joke here we aren’t aware of? ls this a training exercise? Why weren’t we told!” he was getting annoyed.

“What day is this Captain?” was the General’s response.

“Day 4 of an 8 day rotation, Sir!” Royce answered.

“No son, not the shift. The date. The real date.” the General prompted.

Royce had to look at the calendar. “December 24th Sir. No – check that – it’s the 25th now, Sir.” He answered and waited.

“And what day is that son?” came the reply.

“What day?” Royce had to mentally step back and think about it. “Oh, yeah. Right. It’s Christmas.”

“That’s right Captain. And the M-scanner is seeing the anticipation of many people, most of them children I expect, thinking about Santa traveling from the North Pole to their house with a sack of gifts.”

“So, we shouldn’t try to shoot it down then?” Royce was feeling really stupid.

“No – I think that would be a bad idea son.”

“OK, Sir. I’m feeling a bit silly now.” He apologized.

“No need to son – this is the first year that M-Scan has been in place. No one foresaw this… now you enjoy your Christmas, son. Merry Christmas to everyone on watch.”

“Yes sir. And a Merry Christmas to you too, Sir!”

(originally published in the Boundary Communicator Dec 2010)

social commentary xcience

Could an AI be the keeper of extinguishing languages?

Watching a news item about a movie being made in an indigenous setting using indigenous actors speaking the language of their past ancestors. The actors all had to get a language boot camp and still learn how to pronounce the words from the script because none of them speak it. Only about 12 people in the world still speak it – they are all elders and those factors make resurrecting the language extra complicated.

I’ve seen this with other languages at other times – once the speakers are dead and gone the language is likely gone as well.

Even if some lingual genius were to learn these languages that would stave off extinction by one lifetime.

But what if an Artificial Intelligence were to take on the role of learning and using a dying language?

An AI might be able to acquire a new spoken language faster than the average human. And, potentially, it is more easily deploy-able to different places in the world at the same time.

If the AI was able to converse in the new language then that would mean that even after the last native speaker of that language had died there would still be ‘some-one/thing’ that researchers, teachers, students and the curious could converse with. And being able to hold conversations with someone is much better than the instead. Instead of just consuming media and mimicking content.

If this doesn’t already exist it will be possible anytime now. I’m writing this in the fall of 2017 and in the not so distant past a change took place that accelerated machine learning of human language (deep learning and sequence-to-sequence learning). You can read more about that in this article in a series over at

That article is about languages that have a written form – not all do. I am not a linguist but I suspect that many human languages have been spoken only. So an easily used interface that an elderly, computer agnostic / illiterate, individual could operate would be ideal. Possibly a human-like robot designed  styled to be non-threatening, say with a child-like size and appearance. That would help create the right psychological (and possibly emotional) mental state in the elderly person ‘teaching’ the bot their language. It leads them into a parental or grand parent role which might help get their emotional ‘buy in’ of the process. One could say that the little bot is standing in for all the children in the future who might learn the language being passed down.

It’s a shame when a culture or language disappears from the world of man. It’s as if the efforts of all those who contributed to its development over the decades and centuries were ultimately lost to time. And the real shame is it doesn’t have to be that way.