The Long View 2002-12-12: Anomalous Phenomena

The world we live in is a strange place. Truth is stranger than fiction, and now we have the Internet and camera phones to document it. It is trivially easy to find as many uncanny things as you wish lurking in the Web. Most of these things are fabrications designed to attract clicks, and most of the rest are exaggerations or misunderstandings or misinterpretations, but there remains some small fraction of unusual things that have actually happened, but no one really has any understanding of them, or any useful way to synthesize the scattered occurrences into knowledge.

John Reilly sometimes commented upon these Fortean phenomena. However, what I find really interesting about the strange and uncanny is how very normal it all really is. People have always told stories, spread rumors, and seen things that they don't understand. This is part of the human condition, and it reflects the mysterious character of the world we find ourselves in. I would probably find the simulated universe people more convincing if the world made more sense. The very extraordinariness of the world is what makes it seem ordinary to us. There is a way in which everything is right with the world while fish still fall from the sky.

Anomalous Phenomena
 
You can always find a good reason to head for the bunkers. Consider, for instance, the US declaration earlier this week that it would respond to the use of a weapon of mass destruction with anything up to and including nuclear weapons. Couple that with a report that appeared just this morning, to the effect that al-Qaeda recently acquired nerve gas in Iraq. The latter report is based on sources as anonymous as they are unsubstantiated, but the gist is the possibility that the gas could be released in a major subway system when the war begins in Iraq.
This all sounds pretty bad, but we have seen comparably alarming headlines in the recent past that came to nothing. In order to help calm the public, here are some items that treat of less lethal prodigies.
 
* * *
English may be growing a new mood. That, at any rate, is the speculative construction I would like to put on some recent observations by Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. In an article in the New York Times (December 8: "Cablespeak: I Seeing the News Today, Oh Boy!"), he points out that the news stations are increasingly favoring tenseless constructions, like "The Navy using the island for 60 years but ceasing its tests soon." These forms are not really contractions; they certainly are not headlines. In fact, they are generally as long or longer than standard speech. What we are dealing with, he suggests, is the breakdown of the the "news day" as a frame of reference. Newspapers report events that happened before their date of publication, or announce events scheduled to happen after it. On the 24-hour news networks, however, there is no before or after. There is just the period of the news-anchor's attention.
Perhaps the language is developing a refinement that removes the possibility of confusing the historical present with the habitual present. As Nunberg notes, though, it's not a tense. I would suggest calling it the "extensional mood," as in "extensional logic." That is the logic which deals with specific instances, and not with qualities or open-ended classes. In the matter of orthography, it is reasonably clear we have not seen "Classical English" yet. Maybe the same is true of grammar.
On the other hand, the better course might be to just hang a few cable-news copyeditors and save ourselves some trouble.
 
* * *
The Turing Test has become a major business issue. I am sure we are all familiar with this one. The great mathematician, Alan Turing, said that any computer whose responses could not be distinguished from those of a human being would have to be considered to be thinking. This has led to contests to create the most human-like computer program. The Web is full of chatterbots, which can chat like human beings for those who suspend their disbelief and don't ask awkward questions. The problem is that more limited programs are being used by evil marketers to sign up for email accounts and join discussion groups, the better to spread spam.
Once it became commercially necessary to tell human beings from cheap imitations, some stop-gap solutions were found. You have probably already encountered some version of CAPTCHA program. (The name is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.".) The most familiar CAPTCHAs use visual distortion of text or images. People can see through the distortion right away, but it's a problem for computers. However, such problems are difficult rather than insoluable. The CAPTCHAs get better, but so do the programs to defeat them.
And suppose the programmers devised a pattern that a program could recognize, but that human beings could not? No: that way madness lies.
 
-----
Perhaps there is a simple legal solution to the problem of spam, one that avoids the unacceptable pitfalls of simply outlawing the transmission of large numbers of email messages. The worst kind of email is sent by, or for, people who want to make a contract of some sort with the recipient. A minor change to the Uniform Commercial Code could make such contracts unenforceable, at least if they are consummated over the Internet. It would just be a question of demanding hardcopy for sales and subscriptions.
 
* * *
Finally, we come to the kind of story that makes it worthwhile to read a daily newspaper. I quote in part from a story distributed by the Agence France-Presse:
 
ATHENS, Dec. 11 A shower of tiny fish rained down on Korona, a village in the mountains of northern Greece, Greek television reported today, attributing the incident to a mini-tornado.
Fishfalls are the classic Fortean phenomenon. Such events are named after Charles Fort, the one-time editor of a newspaper morgue who published a number of delightful books strongly suggesting that Things Are Not as They Seem. There is a wonderful continuity in these stories. Year after year, the same strange lights appear in the sky, the same metallic artifacts are found in Jurassic rock, the same improbable animals just miss being caught and stuffed (evidence for the Jersey Devil is better than you think, though not by much). Similar, too, is the Party Line put out by the defenders of consensus reality, such as the otherwise unremarked tornado in Korona.
Fortean phenomena are usually imaginary and always annoying. Still, I find them comforting. In a deep sense, everything is right with the world, as long as fish continue to fall from the sky.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site