April 17, 2009

Virtually possible

Suddenly, an odd thought struck me while I was reading one of Terry Pratchett's books. That happens sometimes, but more often when reading a Pratchett. When it struck me, I thought: "in a virtual world, you can easily do things that are virtually impossible".

Virtual literally means "not physically existing". A virtual world is synthetic because it is artificially created by software. Software that runs on clouds perhaps. Fairy tale style magic would be very plausible in a virtual world. Anyone could do it. Nothing special. Hardly marvelous at all.

When something is virtually impossible to achieve, we mean to say that we will probably not succeed in achieving that something. Virtual now has the same meaning as "almost" or "potential".

Today, in our current phase of human evolution, we can only theoretically "beam" people from one physical location to another. It has been researched, and so far the scientists can only beam a single hydrogen molecule. In the process of doing that, the original molecule is taken apart and a snapshot of its complete physical and energetic state is stored in memory. Then a new molecule is constructed and "revived" with the snapshot that is in memory. The details are probably a bit more complex, but the process boils down to the above. Here's why it is virtually impossible to beam people: we don't have enough memory yet to store the snapshot of a single human being, nor the computing power needed to conduct that beaming process in mere seconds.

But in a virtual world "beaming" is trivial. So it is virtually possible. But then again, our current virtual worlds are pathetically unrealistic. Sure, they will get better and better over time. But something tells me that the rendering of a virtual world which humans can't distinguish from the real one is going to be virtually impossible.

For those who were waiting for the point: there isn't one. I was just being virtually philosophical.

April 07, 2009

Crowd surfing

This morning, I used public transportation to go to the office. So, I stepped onto my bike, and headed towards the railway station of big city Alphen aan den Rijn. Normally, I would shut myself out from the world's sounds by listening to my iPod. But today, I didn't, and let the sounds stream into my head. And while I was getting closer to the railway station, I heard and saw more and more people, having all kinds of conversations.

And then it hit me: walking through the crowd is very much like tapping into Twitter. In the crowd you hear bits and pieces of all sorts of conversations. You don't hear enough of the conversations to get a complete picture, so, based on the interestingness of what you just picked up, you decide to hang around and listen for more bits and possibly engage in the conversation yourself or to walk on.

During my commute to the office I made notes of conversation bits that I picked up.

At the train terminal:

...Ah, finally they sent some police officers here to keep those youngsters under control.
Two elderly ladies approve of the officers stationed near the train ticket vending machines.

Which is what I hear a girl all clad in black, wearing Doc Martins and with heavily pierced ears say when I take the last free newspaper from the stand. If looks could kill... I decide to ignore her.

...I managed to get past level 36, but not without cheating to be honest. I downloaded a little cheat code to get improved fire power.

...my dad just bought an X-Trail. It's got a built-in GPS navigator and two DVD screens in the back. I can even connect my DS to the screen. It is fat cool man. By the way, does your dad still drive that dorky Prius.
Loud laughter follows this. I almost engaged in this conversation by saying "what's wrong with the Prius?", but decided against it.

In the train:

...he has been ill for quite a long time, but now he is doing very well. He drinks well, grows well, and finally slept through the night. I am so glad that each of my own children is healthy and happy. Hearing the difficulties others experience can make you realize how lucky you are yourself.

...hey lady, you forgot your bag! This is shouted by a man on the train when a lady stands up and walks to the exit of the train. But she only goes to the toilet and asked for the person sitting opposite to her to look after her bag. Still, it was very considerate of the man. Would I have done the same?

Later at the bus stop:

Steven, stay here! Don't stand so close to the curb! Steven!! Damn!
A mother yells to here 6 year old. The boy chooses to ignore his mother and sings "na-na-na-naaa-naaa". I can't help thinking that my boy would never have done that. I guess I am doing something right in the upbringing of my children.

...it just left, next one comes in 10 minutes.
As I look at the time table for my bus, a girl with way too much make-up informs me in a genuine Utrecht accent that my bus has just left, but that they drive every 10 minutes. I thank her for the information.

...What do you mean, you can't find it? Did you look in the supply cabinet?
In the bus I pick up a shout of outrage from someone who answered his phone. It makes me wonder what it is they lost, and what the consequences will be. Will someone be fired because of this? I want to know more, but of course it is inappropriate to inform about it.

It is impossible to tie all these bits together (unless you are Dirk Gently and run a Holistic Detective Agency), but it made one thing clear to me: people are social beings. They interact with each-other to give advise, to help, to warn, to express relief, anger or any other emotion, et cetera. Passively observing other people can be reassuring or can make you wonder about your own situation. There's much reflection here from my part, but it occurred to me that I use Twitter (and Yammer) in much the same way. There is much wisdom in a crowd. And while you surf through it, you can learn a lot about people and perhaps most importantly, about yourself.