Friday, 29 March 2013


There's no evidence Einstein actually said this, but it probably is a view he'd have some sympathy with.

I say this because he devoted much of his later life to the pursuit of a theory - the 'grand unified field theory' - which would make it possible to explain quantum physics simply. He did this without much success and in the face of steadily mounting evidence that his quest was misguided. There's a pretty good discussion of much of the later Einstein's disagreement with mainstream physics in Manjit Kumar's excellent Quantum, if you're interested in more detail.

Whether or not Einstein said it, or held the attitude, it seems to be a popular quote; the above image does the rounds on Facebook fairly regularly. The idea that things should be simple and easily understood certainly plays a major part in the oft-lamented and seemingly-growing distrust of science and scientists. When a scientist can only give a complicated truth that people can't understand, his audience come away unsatisfied, confused and sometimes even suspicious.

But the cruel truth is that the universe isn't simple. Actually, it's worse than that - it is simple, but simple doesn't mean what you think it means. Einstein's greatest contribution to science, the general theory of relativity, comes down to one simple equation, E=MC^2, and is actually beautifully, breathtakingly elegant when you grasp it (for a good introduction, I recommend 'Why Does E=MC^2?' by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw).

Even the standard model of quantum physics, which Einstein so hated, comes down to a couple of handfuls of particles and their interactions expressed in a few lines of maths. The trouble is, it takes a Wikipedia page like this to even begin to break it up into things that can be explained, and whole books to actually do any of that explaining.

In academic discourse, 'simple' doesn't mean 'easy to understand'. It means 'involving few entities and relationships' - this is why Occam's razor is such a powerful and important analytic tool. We prefer the theory that explains what we're studying in the fewest possible terms. The trouble with quantum physics is that when you try to explain the whole universe, you still need a fairly large number of terms (again, I stress: the fact that the standard model only uses seventeen particles is stunning in its elegance), and you still have to do immensely complicated things with those terms to explain everything.

I'm feeling particularly sore about this at the moment because I have to present at Liverpool University's 'Poster Day' in a couple of weeks. The essence of the day is that I make a big poster summarising my research in terms that someone with no specialist knowledge of my subject (philosophy) could understand, then pin it up in a lecture room and stand next to it for six hours trying not to feel too patronised by the experience.

Poster Day is a promotional event for the university; they actually say on the website for the event that "We aim to show off as much of our postgraduate research talent as we can". The event is open to anyone, and we're supposed to pitch our posters at a level such that anyone with an undergraduate degree should be able to understand them.

The problem is that frontier academic research these days, in every discipline, is incredibly specialised. To understand any particular project, you have to know about its context and have a solid grounding in the terminology of the subject area. As a guesstimate, the average poster at poster day is going to have around 1,500 words (mine clocks in at a whopping 1,700 - almost one-fortieth of the length of the current draft of my thesis) - about 5 minutes' reading time.

At a stretch, I might be able to explain what my project is about to a lecturer in philosophy in five minutes, provided they had a solid grounding in contemporary metaphysics. I could explain how I've framed the debate between physical realism, dualism and idealism; how I've shown that compatibilist theories of mind rely on revisionist definitions of the term 'mental'; how I've dispensed with the Bird-Dipert graph theoretic version of causal structuralism and used John Foster's argument from functional arrangements to illustrate the necessary dependence of the experiential world on the relationship between human minds and external reality.

If any of that meant anything to you, I'm guessing it's because you've studied philosophy at some point ('idealism', by the way, doesn't mean political idealism, which is really just optimism; it means this). The actual new work that I've done - the definition of the mental, my argument against Bird and Dipert, and my treatment of Foster - is all stuff that will be meaningless to you unless you have that background to draw on.

Any time I spend trying to explain the context to you, of course, is time I can't spend actually talking about my work. Given that I've got five minutes to communicate to you (apparently you're attending Poster Day now? Do say hi ;D), there's not enough time to do both. So I have a choice; either I can explain to you the context of my work, or I can explain what my work is (to be completely frank, what I can actually choose between is giving a brief introduction to the context or to my work).

I'm supposed to present my work to you in a form you can understand, but in the time and space available,  that simply (hah) can't be done.

I'm not just griping, by the way. The point of the example is this: when you simplify something, you lose detail, and detail is not always something you can afford to lose. With academic research, the first cost of simplification tends to be the most valuable bit - the bit that's actually new.

If you demand that people simplify their work to the point that you can understand it without specialist expertise, you will miss out on everything that is valuable about that work (this goes just as much for writing fiction, by the way - simplify any story enough and it comes down to one of a handful of archetypes, but that doesn't mean the story itself is just an archetype and therefore valueless).

Don't demand people come down to your level. Lift yourself up to theirs - the view is always interesting.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Post-Copyright Age

Okay, someone has to call it, so I'm going to: copyright law is dead (apologies if you've already called it elsewhere, or you know of someone who has - send me a link?).

We're still in the 'violent death-throes' territory, to be sure, but well past the point of no return. Let me put it this way: an unenforceable law is no law at all, and nothing has proved copyright law unenforceable so thoroughly as the ham-handed and inconsistent attempts to enforce it. Digital sharing is here to stay, unless and until the internet itself goes away. Anything which can be digitised is fair game, and the only things that are safe are those that end-consumers can't use yet (like designs for hi-tech devices etc., but even their days are numbered).

And I don't honestly have a moral objection to this. I do, however, have a practical objection. Let's group all artists, designers, writers, etc. under the heading of 'intellectual property creators' ('IP creators') for want of a better term. My problem is this: IP creators need to be able to make a living from their creativity. It isn't just the rate of one's work but also the upper bound on its quality which is limited by sharing time with a day-job.

This isn't just self-indulgence, by the way. I take it as axiomatic that the purpose of intelligent life is intelligence, and that no human should have to do a job which could be done by a mindless automaton. We all have talents, and a moral duty to use them; all I'm saying is that we should get as many of the biological hurdles out of the way as possible. Sportspeople ought to be able to make a living from their sporting talents, and any other genuine and meaningful talent that falls outside IP creation ought also to be a source of livelihood.

I believe it should be possible to make a living from your talents; in fact, I believe it should be much easier than it currently is. It's a much-lamented fact that the corporate systems by which IP creators make money are at best bloated and at worst outright predatorial. Not all people who work for any given  creative-industries corporation are a waste of money, but the corporations themselves add a lot of baggage to what, in an ideal world, would be a relationship directly between creator and audience. Copyright law is fundamentally an artefact of the corporations.

What we need is a new model for how audiences can support creators, one which doesn't waste millions on Manhattan office rents and bonuses for board members.

If we look at things from a purely creator-audience viewpoint, the benefit of corporate capitalism has been its ability to pool audience money. Very few people have enough spare income that they could fund a creator's career by themselves, but we can each buy an author's book or a musician's album, and the sum will support that creator (in theory) after it's filtered through the corporate system.

Let's say that an IP creator, being a skilled worker but working in the job of their dreams, is worth something along the lines of £40,000 (~$60,000) a year - comfortable but not extravagant (yeah, okay, there's a whole massive argument to be had here, but can we leave it for another time?). Using authors as an example, since it's probably the one we know most about, we know that on a £9 paperback, an author's going to end up with maybe £1 of the sales revenue (numbers greatly simplified, of course). That means that to make your £40k, you're going to need to generate £360,000 in sales revenue.

Now, some of that £360k is going to people who are equally important in the process - editors, mainly, but also designers, typesetters etc. But a lot of it is going on the rent on the publisher's city-centre offices, corporate hospitality and shareholder profits, stuff in which an audience has no interest at all.

My point is not just that corporations are bloated and wasteful. I want to float an idea for an alternative model.

In times of yore, many IP creators (though no-one thought of them as such; they were 'artists', 'composers' etc.) were supported by patronage from the wealthy. Lords, kings and even sometimes high clergy would pay an artist's keep in exchange for the prestige of association and first call on the artist's services. Obviously, the system was far from perfect, but many of the greatest creators history has known benefitted from it.

Obviously, very few of us could hope to be patron to even a single IP creator. What I'm envisaging is a system of charitable 'patronage trusts', to which consumers could donate small amounts anually, and which would provide stipends to IP creators and cover publication expenses. As an example, our £40k-a-year author could be supported by just 8,000 people giving £5 each once per year; costs on a per-book basis are difficult to estimate, but an extra couple of thousand supporters ought to cover it.

Creators would apply to trusts for part or whole stipends on a model somewhere between applying for a regular job and applying for the kind of government and/or charitable grants that support many museums, theatres, academic research institutions and projects, and independent creative organisations. Trusts would have to operate on a fairly market-sensitive sort of basis, but without the burden of a corporate infrastructure and shareholder dividends to pay.

To get around the piracy problem, trusts could offer the bulk of the work they support for free and provide premium services to subscribers - this is a model that works well for a number of webcomics, I know, though I don't know whether that holds good for experiments with it in other fields.

This is all just a vague proposal at the moment, and I don't really know what the first step in pursuing it might be (except, obviously, finding a flagship creator likely to be able to create enough attention to get the idea off the ground), but given how difficult it is to predict what the creative industries will look like in ten years' time (or even next month), it's worth some sort of experiment, surely?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Second Realm 4.4: Catch Me When I Fall

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The Rabbit Hole

4. Catch Me When I Fall

Chag's head swam as he launched himself out into space. Below, the jagged shape of the Court blurred to a vague dark circle. Rushing air clawed at his hair, and his heart seized. Pevan's shout of joy still rang in his ears. His wings felt like twigs hung with paper. He could feel his feathers leaking air.

He flapped his arms, surprised as ever when they caught the weight of the sky below and pushed him upwards. That took the worst edge off his panic, though his blood was still cold where the wind ran through his plumage. Above, Pevan and the bright golden shape of Atla circled.

The Guide shone, sun-like. Chag had taken his show of nerves at the ledge for a shared fear of heights, but from the way he beat higher and then dipped again, that seemed unlikely. What had he been so afraid of? Pevan's admiration of his wings had seemed to cure him in an instant.

Scowling, his eyes stinging from the speed of his flight, Chag looked down again. Better to face the descent than worry about Pevan's feelings right now. At least his discomfort about the altitude couldn't last too long.

Held straight out like sails, his wings did the necessary work to hold him more or less steady. Already, there was no sign of the promontory from which they'd jumped, just miles of endless sky, roaring in his ears. He missed the insectoid flying technique he'd learned with the Separatists. Bugs flew by forgetting about gravity. Birds seemed to prefer knowing that they were flying.

But as an insect, it would have taken years to descend from this height. Chag flinched as Pevan dropped past him, what seemed only inches from his wingtip. The twitch that ran through him set him weaving in the air, and he barely missed the flashing shape of Atla as the Guide dived down over his other wing.

They levelled out maybe twenty feet below Chag, while he was still struggling to recover his stability. Lazily, the pair of them looped round a broad circle. Chag tried to imitate them, but he knew his path would be crooked and ugly. He could feel it in the way his feathers twisted in their sockets.

Rissad's voice drifted back to him out of time, warning him against thinking too much about the mechanics of a bird's flight. Let instinct do the work. Easy for him to say. He'd been a natural flier, quite apart from having a Gatemaker's gift for getting up very high very quickly.

Pevan rose on slow, strong wing-beats to level with him, her wingtips almost touching his. He managed not to twitch away, just. She laughed, the sound a spray of jewels that sparkled with caught reflections of Atla's plumage. Then she shook her head, let a ripple of motion pass along her wings. Trailing out behind and above her, her body looked as if it had been made for the air. Her coat and trousers clung to her, outlining the strength and toughness beneath.

Chag glared down at Atla. Granted, he was Pevan's age and Chag was a few years older, but the boy seemed so young when he stood - or flew - next to Pevan. Young and a bit dim, for all he clearly knew his Gift. And yet Pevan had offered him an easy, generous trust, gently encouraging him along the journey from Vessit and trusting their lives to him at the Gorhilt Sherim. She'd never been so kind to Chag.

Well, maybe the kid appealed to her maternal instincts, though Chag found it hard to reconcile any idea of motherhood with the fierce, proud woman he'd fallen for. As if to prove the point, she swooped down again, past Atla, close enough to scare him. He peeled away, lost altitude before some quick but undignified flapping stabilised him.

Pevan and the boy were getting uncomfortably far ahead. A slow descent was nice, but he didn't want to be doing it alone, not with Atla having warned that there were Wildren below. Gritting his teeth and wincing, Chag tipped himself forward into a dive. The air hardened and clawed at him, and his gut squirmed, but he forced himself to hold steady, arms - wings - thrown back to keep him stable.

From above, the light brought out the shimmering green in Pevan's plumage, rippling back and forth along her wings with every minor shift. Atla glowed, those of his feathers that actually were golden blazing bright enough to be painful to look at. The lad shook himself, and for a moment the highlights off his feathers dazzled Chag.

By the time he'd finished blinking, he was almost on top of Pevan. He wrenched himself sideways, into an ungainly spiral. Pevan's wild laughter pursued him as he dropped past her, fighting his wings back into something resembling flying order.

He began to level out, but a black-green streak whirled past, wind from her passage buffeting him, destabilising him. He had to give up, give in to the dive again. Atla, somewhere above, yelped in surprise, but there was nothing Chag could do about whatever troubled him. Below, Pevan showed no sign of slowing.

Shivers coursing through him, he gave grim chase. There were few advantages to his poor, ratty plumage, but the constant leakage of air through his feathers did give him the edge in speed. Pevan sacrificed some speed, too, throwing herself into a wild roll for, as far as Chag could tell, the sheer hell of it.

The gap closed while the black hexagon of the Court swelled ahead - easier to think of it as 'ahead' than 'below'. Pevan rolled again, giving Chag a glimpse of her face, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed. By the time she'd straightened out, back into the dive, he was alongside, looking past his shoulder at her, squinting one-eyed against the wind. She grinned at him, one eyebrow quirking in challenge.

He shook his head, scowling, but she stuck out her tongue and stretched herself out further, beginning to edge ahead again. Chag swore, the sound barely travelling fast enough to outrun them, but the only answer he got from Pevan was a laugh.

Atla's incandescent frame dropped past, wings folded all the way flat, almost wrapped around his body. The boy caught himself, violently, against the air just below them, and almost as quickly was lifted back out of view. There was another peal of laughter from Pevan - she sounded more like a bird of prey every time she opened her mouth - and she too unfurled her wings. The sky snatched her away like a yo-yo at the end of its string.

Chag cursed again and opened his wings. Fire burst along the tendons in his shoulders, a hot line of pain along his collarbones that left him gasping. It took long enough to stabilise his flight that his gut began to turn cartwheels. He looked around to find Pevan and Atla looping under and over each other as they dived in the opposite direction. The air, or at least the expectation of it, stung his cheeks.

Heeling over, he chased them downwards, biting back grumbles. At least they'd levelled out to muck around this time. He could take a shallower dive and still catch them. That freed him of the icy terror of head-first falling.

He gained easily, nursing the sullen weight of his own scowl, but he couldn't hang onto his displeasure long enough. After all, now that Atla wasn't getting left behind, what was there really to be angry about? It wasn't like he was anxious to get to the Court and its waiting confrontations. Was he just letting Pevan's easy camaraderie with the boy get under his skin? She couldn't really see anything in the green little snip, could she?

As he checked his approach, Pevan beat her wings a few times and rose clear of Atla's gyrations. The lad took a while to notice, while Pevan craned her neck to look back at Chag. Even at thirty feet or more, he could read trouble in her expression. It was her smirk, the one that, over the month since they'd met, had always promised a challenge to his better judgement. His pulse started to race.

She rolled over in the air, and her wings turned back into arms.

Chag's reflexes took over, throwing him into a fresh steep dive as Pevan started to drop away. For a moment, as his every sensation was replaced by ice, Chag thought she'd been attacked or lost concentration, but her face was calm. Was she testing him? Below her, the Court was beginning to look like the castle he was familiar with rather than a distant abstract shape.

The one absolute rule when flying was that you couldn't get your wings back if you lost them mid-air. Inevitable panic at the fall made it impossible to summon the concentration. Pevan had to have assumed he'd catch her, but she was taking a big risk.

Still, what could he do? He could resent her playing games with him, but it wouldn't change the fact that she was right. That same smirk that anticipated his aid also commanded his obedience. He threw himself forward, wings folded tight, hair snapping and flapping around his face.

Below him, Pevan spread-eagled herself, arms wide to slow her fall. Letting him catch up. It still felt like a terribly slow process, but inch by inch, she drifted up to him. She was still smirking. The distance between them came down to a couple of feet, and she made no move to grab on to him. Then it was eighteen inches, then a foot, and still no move on her part.

He opened his wings, just slightly, and let them drag him back to match her speed, so that she seemed to float just inches below him. Almost close enough that they could kiss, but when he met her eyes, he saw only mischief.

She gave him no chance to brace himself, but tackled him, somehow sharply slowing her descent and wrapping her arms around him. She managed to pin his arms to his sides, and her strength told quickly, squeezing his elbows into his ribs, the pain breaking his concentration and robbing him of his wings.

Then she tipped them over, so that she was above him, and they were falling not far off head-first. The firebird shape of Atla flashed across Chag's field of vision, far above. Pevan's grip was so tight that he could barely breathe, and it felt like the air was rushing past too quickly for him to get hold of it.

"Hold on, you muppet!" Pevan had to shout the words, and a shudder went through Chag as he felt them buzz past his ear. What was she playing at? His arms needed very little encouragement to wrap themselves around her rod-straight, stone-sturdy body, even without the threat of impending doom.

No sooner had he got a good hold on her than her grip on him vanished. For a moment, there was a rush of cold, but it cut off sharply, replaced by the punched-diaphragm sensation of deceleration. Despite his best efforts, Chag's arms jerked half-way loose.

He wrapped his fingers in the folds of Pevan's blouse, hoping to find the reinforced straps she'd sewed in there for exactly this kind of purpose. The terrifying pops of seams letting go, one stitch at a time, told him he'd missed. He tried to link his hands, form a ring of bones around Pevan's chest, but still the slipping, slipping-

Pevan beat her wings, and the shock jerked him loose. His veins just had time to freeze completely, and then the wind went out of him as he slammed into hard ground. He heard and felt Pevan's landing rather than seeing it - her back foot must have missed his forehead by all of an inch. Gasping, he lay on the floor, staring at the distant, circling shape of Atla, sharply distinct from the deep azure sky.

"There, that wasn't so bad, now was it?" Pevan drawled the words, her smirk still singing through them. He twisted to look, just in time to meet her eyes as she finished, "I still can't believe you don't enjoy flying."

Still tight for breath, he could do nothing but burst out in hoarse, gasping laughter. Pevan joined in, and the only mercy was that she didn't sound much better off. The paroxysms that came with the mirth didn't help with the task of getting up, but she leaned down and offered her firm but kindly support. Atla settled into a neat landing a little way away as the madness wore off.

They were on the walkway atop one of the walls of the Court, a yard-wide strip of black stone with a low parapet on one side and the drop to the courtyard on the other. Chag's stomach turned over when he looked down into the yard, so he fixed his gaze on the monolithic Court building beyond. It towered over the wall, the peak of its steep roof seeming almost as high as the points of the spires at either end of the walkway. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of narrow, white-framed windows notched its surface like the seeds on a strawberry.

Voice even weedier than usual, Atla said, "How did you get your wings back? I thought that was supposed to be impossible."

"That's just if you panic." Pevan shrugged, grinning. "I'm used to having to not panic when falling from high up."

Something writhed, deep in Chag's bowels. "Please tell me you've done that before?"

"Get my wings back midair?" She shot him that smirk again. "Not specifically. But it's no different than trying to plan three Gates ahead while dropping from a hundred yards up. Come on, let's go and meet the welcoming committee." She waved down at the courtyard.

It was all Chag could do not to throw up as he contemplated the drop, but the yard below was so neatly real that for a moment he found comfort in it. This yard - and the Court had dozens around its perimeter - was laid out as a simple formal garden, a path weaving across an immaculate lawn to the fountain at its centre.

By the fountain stood a figure who added a very different flavour to his churning unease. Hair like scarlet silk framed a knife-like face, and the unmistakably feminine form of the Gift-Giver was clothed in violet, skirt and sleeves so long that the dress looked more like a cloak. He didn't need to make out any more to recognise her.

"Taslin." Pevan's tone was grim.

"You know her?" Atla piped up, voice high and tight. His eyes were wide.

Pevan turned to him, and Chag walked up to join her, keeping his eyes on the Gift-Giver and trying not to let his knees wobble. In a voice that would do nothing to restore the Guide's confidence, Pevan said, "If anyone knows what's happened to Rel, she does."

Without another word, she turned and headed for the staircase that clung to the inside of the wall. Chag shared a worried look with Atla, then moved to follow. At least this set of stairs had a handrail, flimsy though it looked. The rail was probably all that stood between him and a heart attack, so badly did his heart pound as they descended.

Taslin made them come to her, not moving from the fluid, abstract stonework of the fountain bowl. Angular buildings, both ten or more stories in height, framed the ends of the yard, but they had nothing on the Gift-Giver's monumental presence. Dim memory reminded Chag that a Gift-Giver welcoming humans to the Court was supposed to wait for them, but he was sure they weren't always so rigid about it.

How Pevan found the courage to lead them right up to her he had no idea. He could almost feel Atla's trembling. His own blood roared in his ears. It didn't help that Taslin towered over them all by the better part of a foot.

Pevan drew breath, but Taslin cut her off. "It is considered extremely bad manners for Separatists to come to the Court unannounced." Her tone was sharp enough to cut sunlight, but there was nothing of a Wilder about it. She sounded like an irate Four Knot dressing down a recalcitrant squad. "Were you of my kind, your Talerssi would be very great indeed. What are you doing here?"

Pevan twitched, and Chag watched with some small awe as she fought back whatever violent urge had hit her. She couldn't match Taslin for tone, but her voice was flat with anger as she hissed, "Greetings, Gift-Giver. I am Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas."

All the expression went out of Taslin's face, except for the faintest glint of anger in her eyes. She turned her glare on Chag so hard he almost cringed. He cleared his throat, found his mouth almost too dry to speak. "I'm Chag Van Raighan, Witness of Tendullor."

Atla handled himself rather better, pulling himself up and staring through the Gift-Giver as her attention fell on him. Only the faintest swallow spoiled the act. "Um, I'm Atla Colber, candidate Guide of Lefal, training under Bersh of Vessit."

Chag watched Taslin's face, but could read nothing there. She had to be wondering whether they'd abducted the boy. It had been a mistake to bring him. The Gift-Giver somehow managed to make her voice warm, though none of that warmth made it to her eyes. "Welcome to the Court. I am Taslin of the Gift Givers."

Again, Pevan drew breath, but Taslin's glare returned full force. The Wilder raised a single finger under Pevan's nose, her fingernail long and deep, sparkling purple, as if she'd painted it. Pevan went white, muscles in her jaw rippling.

Taslin said, "Now that charade is out of the way, I'll ask again. What do you think you're doing here? And with a coerced trainee Guide? You and him" - Chag flinched as her finger snapped round to point at him - "are under warrant for arrest for more crimes than I care to count."

Atla stepped forward, started to say something, but Chag waved him back. Better to keep the kid out of this as much as possible. Whatever Pevan had done to recruit him, it wasn't anything to do with Separatism.

Somehow, against the terrible force of Taslin's silence, Pevan found courage to speak. Her voice held, quiet and steady. "I've come seeking information about my brother, last seen being carried away from Vessit by an unidentified Child of the Wild for unknown purposes."

"Your brother is under my personal authority, as you well know." Taslin let her arms fall back to her sides, but somehow managed to scowl even more deeply. "He was put under my authority in your presence, and you directly aided him in committing the offence for which I arrested him. Why should I not arrest you too?"

Pevan bit her lip and took a deep breath. Again, Chag had to wave at Atla to keep quiet. Less steady now, Pevan said, "My crimes, whatever they are, are for human justice to decide on. As Gatemaker, if one of my kind is in danger in the Second Realm, I am entitled to bail for the purpose of transporting a rescue or relief mission."

In the moment that Taslin took to make a show of speechless anger, while Chag was distracted watching her, Atla spoke. "Won't Relvin also be entitled to human witnesses to the proceedings?"

Chag gaped at him. Where had that come from? Pevan, too, turned to look at the lad, a new level of respect in the set of her eyes. She said, "You're right, you know. I hadn't even thought of that. Well done."

Atla looked like he might say more, but then his eyes flicked to Taslin, and he seemed to lock up from within, adam's apple bobbing. A line of ice shot down Chag's spine, and he found himself turning very slowly to look up at the Gift-Giver, eyes narrowed.

"Very well." There was no anger in Taslin's face or voice at all. Somehow, that was even more frightening than the rage she'd greeted them with. "The Separatists have clearly trained you well. Come with me."

She spun on her heel, the long, gauzy skirt of her dress billowing out and then floating in her wake. Pevan looked at Chag, face white. He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, trying to guide her with him, before Taslin changed her mind. Pevan resisted at first - he could feel her trembling - but then turned and picked up her step, leaving him behind.

All three humans were a little unsteady as they made their way across the yard. Pevan hung well back from Taslin's trailing hem, her fists clenching and unclenching as she walked. Chag let Atla go next, in case he needed to catch the boy. He was weaving as if drunk.

Walking straight towards the looming central keep didn't help. Maybe Taslin had chosen this route, across the lush grass, for that reason. Chag had never felt so small, and yet in some ways, he still felt too large, too noticeable, in the open courtyard. A shiver coursed through him every time something moved out of the corner of his eye, but no matter how he looked round, he saw no watching, stalking Wildren.

Etiquette said that the Gift-Givers would never use their natural ability to blend with the terrain in the Court. They were supposed to meet humans half-way here, to always maintain roughly human form as a gesture of goodwill. But how much of their goodwill did he still have any claim on? Perhaps they would hold back out of mercy for Atla.

He wished himself back in Tendullor, back at home with nothing more to deal with than the Sherriff's tedious requests. Rissad was supposed to be the keen one, and it wasn't supposed to be Chag's job to clean up after him when he overreached himself. He gritted his teeth. If Rissad ever did get back, they were going to have words, though knowing his brother, he'd probably come back with some revelation that would justify everything.

Taslin brought them to a portico-framed door. Its pillars had a twist that distorted the otherwise careful and fascinatingly-detailed engraving. It was as if they'd been built and carved straight and time had warped them. The door opened silently and smoothly, though.

Inside, they found themselves in a dim hallway, inadequate and dying candles spread thinly along the walls. There were more doors on each side than he could quickly count, spaced unevenly, and none of them directly paired with one opposite. The floor had a chessboard pattern, but his eyes rebelled against following the lines of it. None of them seemed to be straight, even though every tile was square.

Again, the thought occurred that Taslin might have chosen this route deliberately. Most of the Court, or at least the bits of it that Chag was familiar with, was much easier to deal with than this. The only things he could look at comfortably were Pevan's, Atla's and Taslin's backs, and the imposing door at the end of the hall.

In the gloom, Taslin's skin seemed to glow, a nimbus rising and falling as she passed each candle. The fabric of her dress fluttered far more extravagantly than any real material could. It seemed to weigh no more than dandelion seeds, floating even in still air. Another attack on their logic? Or a gesture of some other subtle significance? By way of contrast, the Gift-Giver's bodice was stitched tight against her skin, picking up every feline shift of her back and shoulders.

She was beautiful, no question about it, but it was a beauty of contrivance. A good six feet behind her, Pevan walked steadily, evenly, energy conserved and no attention wasted for irrelevant details. Probably Pevan wasn't even bothered by the uneasy reality of the corridor. There was no sign of the fear that had gripped her after the confrontation in the courtyard. Taslin might be beautiful, but Pevan needed no beauty at all.

Of course, she didn't need him, either. He hadn't even considered how the Gift-Givers might react to his arrival. The Court was supposed to be a friendly and welcoming environment for humans, but maybe he didn't count anymore. Pevan must have foreseen that his arrival would have caused problems, and she'd made clear that she felt no great attachment to him.

Yes, Rel was entitled to a Witness present, if he was to stand trial before the Wildren, but Pevan clearly wanted more than that from this trip. Did she expect Chag to help her rescue Rel? He couldn't see how they'd get an opportunity. Last time he'd tried to escape the Court against the wishes of the Gift-Givers, he hadn't been much use to anyone at all.

Taslin flung open the door at the end of the corridor, and Chag's train of thought ground to a halt. The room beyond was bright enough, after the dim hallway, to leave him blinking, and Atla too by the look of it. Pevan didn't even flinch.

They followed Taslin into the light, which turned out to come from a mountainous chandelier high among the vaults of a peaked roof. The room was larger, though not by much, than any house or Warding Hall in the First Realm, but it extended upward so far that the only thing his mind could compare it to was Vessit's Abyss. The chandelier didn't seem to have candles, it was just a tangled, elegantly symmetrical webwork of crystals, glowing from within.

Chag brought his gaze back down and surveyed the room at his own level. A row of benches sat along the wall to their left, a Court Guard standing to attention at either end. The Guards - there were a pair on the opposite side of the room, too, by the sole other doorway - stood what had to be eight feet tall, though some of that was in the almost comical heels on their jewelled boots, their vaguely-human forms stretched out to an unsettling thinness. They wore no clothes, but their skin itself blurred the more intimate contours from their bodies, shifting about them like fine mist.

It was hard not to stare at them, but there were three other figures in the room who demanded more attention. Rel stood in the centre of the floor, looking back over his shoulder to watch Pevan enter. The Clearseer's face was... very difficult to characterise. He no longer gave off the air of total conviction that had persuaded Chag and Pevan to stay in Vessit to wait for the quake. His expression of horror and shock couldn't hide new lines around his eyes that spoke of some deeper tension.

Beyond Rel, a pair of Gift-Givers were watching the new arrivals. Both wore robes of a style that echoed Taslin's flowing, formal dress, one in green and the other turquoise. Green-robes was bald, his face lined with the appearance of age, but his eyes un-hooded and bright. The other looked younger, more alien, the high protrusions of his cheek bones just a little too wide. He had hair almost the colour of Taslin's, but pulled tight behind his head.

Rel's eyes went to Taslin, who walked over to stand behind his shoulder. Her voice, stiff but not loud, actually echoed slightly, the ambience striking after the Second Realm's usual deafness. "Pevan Atcar, Chag Van Raighan and Atla Colber have come to witness the trial of Relvin Atcar, in accord with the treaty."

The older Gift-Giver gave them a slow, shallow bow. "Welcome, Pevan Atcar, Chag Van Raighan, Atla Colber. I am Quilo, standing as arbitrator."

Face unmoving, the other Gift-Giver said, "I am Loget of the Gift-Givers, standing as inquisitor. Please be seated." He raised an arm to indicate the benches.

Pevan bowed, much lower than Quilo had. Chag started to mimic her, but stopped when he noticed Atla hadn't. The kid seemed to know what he was doing, or at least he had so far. It would only be a minor mistake, surely, if he was wrong. Chag followed him over to the benches, surprised when he made space for Chag to sit between him and Pevan. What did that indicate?

Quilo turned to face them. "Your timing is fortuitous. We had only just initiated the proceedings when your approach was detected. Will it trouble you if we do not repeat the formal invocation, and instead proceed to the charges?" He spoke with the precision and clarity of a Wilder, but the tone of his voice was very human, the rich baritone of a professional singer. Chag had known only two other Gift-Givers capable of such accurate mimicry - Keshnu and Taslin.

The Gift-Giver waited for Atla and Chag to nod, even after Pevan had spoken for them. Then he turned to Rel. "You stand under the authority of Taslin of the Gift-Givers, by right of Talerssi after your exemption from human justice by the Separatists. On this authority, you are required to explain your attack on Keshnu of the Gift-Givers at the Abyss under Vessit yesterday. I understand you also wish to account for a number of actions you took while under the authority of the Treaty of Peace?"

Chag exchanged a worried look with Pevan, a stone settling in his stomach. Rel simply nodded and said, "Yes, arbitrator." His voice was calm, even weary.

"I must ask you to confirm that you understand that the case by which you might defend these actions in a First Realm court cannot succeed here."

"I understand, arbitrator." It almost looked as if Rel were under Coercion from Taslin, except that no true case of Coercion had ever been so subtle. Had Taslin developed some new power?

"Very well. What are these additional actions?"

Rel glanced to Taslin, who nodded, ever so slightly. She said, "Relvin Atcar twice allowed or enabled wanted fugitives to escape First Realm justice. He attacked and seriously injured Ismur of the Abyss Guards. He conspired with Rissad Van Raighan in actions which caused an irreparable disturbance to the Abyss under Vessit. While in custody at Vessit, he withheld information gained from Clearviewings from agents of the Treaty of both kinds."

Again, Chag glanced at Pevan. He hardly understood half of what the Gift-Giver had said, but Pevan nodded grimly. Under her breath, she said, "Sounds like Rel. Particularly the last bit."

Quilo said, "Do you dispute any of these descriptions?"

"No, arbitrator."

"Then you may begin your explanation." The Gift-Giver held up a hand. "With the Inquisitor's permission, I have a personal request: please would you begin by explaining the connection between these two sets of charges? Besides the location at which you performed the actions in contention, there seems to be little similarity among them."

Rel blinked, clearly surprised. Still, he nodded, glancing at Loget. "Do I have your permission, Inquisitor?"

"Yes." By contrast with Quilo and Taslin, Loget's voice was every bit the flat, cold tone of a Wilder, though probably in any other context he'd have sounded rather more fluent.

"I performed all the actions in contention while labouring under misconceptions born of incomplete information." Rel spoke with equanimity, though some of his words seemed to stick in his throat, as if he was not comfortable with the precision required.

Some twitch from Atla brought Chag's attention round to the Guide. The lad's mouth was working silently, until he saw Chag looking. He whispered, "It's been a long time since an incomplete information defence was successful."

"How do you know so much about this stuff?" Frustration made Chag's voice louder than he'd intended. Just being fresh from training couldn't explain Atla's expertise.

"Bersh encouraged me to take a look at it. Guides end up at Court a lot. It's-" He cut off as Pevan hissed at them, gesturing to shut up.

Rel was speaking again, describing the sequence of events as he'd arrived in Vessit. Chag picked up the thread easily enough - he knew most of it from the Separatists and Delaventrin's Clearviewings, and much of the rest from Rel himself. How he'd come to be in the tunnels alone, despite travelling to Vessit with Dora and Taslin, remained a mystery - either he hadn't said, or Chag had missed it.

The Clearseer grew more animated, arms spread before him. "The key point as I see it is that when Ismur confronted me, I was operating only on the basis of my own Clearviewing. I knew there were W- Children of the Wild in the caves under Vessit, and that they were holding and abusing Rissad Van Raighan."

It was Atla's turn to look curiously at Chag. He opened his mouth to explain, but Pevan thumped him on the leg.

Rel continued. "I did not know that Keshnu's contingent were known to the Four Knot of Vessit, and there by agreement. I did not know the nature of the Abyss. I also did not know that your kind knew of the Sherim in the pre-Crash facility by the Abyss. When Ismur confronted me, I had no way of knowing that his presence was as a legitimate guard and not as a sentry for an invading force. Do you understand this concept?"

Quilo and Loget chorused, "I do."

"Knowing that Rissad was badly injured, I had little time to make a decision on whether to trust Ismur's word. He refused to offer any credentials for his presence, and did not indicate that the Four Knot in Vessit had consented to it." Rel paused and bit his lip, glancing to Taslin. She patted him on the shoulder, and Chag frowned at how tender the gesture seemed.

When he resumed speaking, there was a slight hitch to Rel's voice. "I could not see - think of - a reason why Ismur would not have told me to ask for confirmation in Vessit, unless such confirmation was unavailable. From this, and the fact that I knew Rissad had received treatment which was explicitly against the letter of the treaties, I judged Ismur to be predatory and a threat not just to my own safety but to Rissad and the people of Vessit, whom it is my obligation to protect.

"At the time, as far as I knew, the nearest Sherim was a hundred miles away, so an attempt to return Ismur to the Second Realm was impractical. Furthermore, I judged Rissad's need pressing in the extreme. Lastly, the confined space of the tunnel where Ismur confronted me limited my options for getting past him. There seemed to be little chance that I could reach Rissad without incapacitating Ismur." Rel paused and looked down at his hands, his eyes half-closed. "I used my Gift to anticipate Ismur's first attack. I did not strike until attacked."

Silence stretched out. Pevan was leaning forward on the bench, her jaw clenched. Atla fidgeted, picking at a seam in his trousers. All three Gift-Givers stood stock still, and only Rel's twisting hands made the tableau seem alive.

Loget said, "The information you claim ignorance of was available to you through the Four Knot in Vessit. For your case to succeed, you must explain why you did not avail yourself of this source."

Chag bit his lip. He could hear Atla swallow beside him. Rel lifted his head and met the Inquisitor's eye. "The Abyss at Vessit is, as we have seen in the last three days, a danger to the entire First Realm. The existence of an eighteenth Sherim, even if it does not connect to the Second Realm, is similarly significant information. Had I had access to that information at the time of my original Clearviewing, I would have been able to make better decisions about how to approach Rissad's rescue. If I may ask a personal favour, please could you explain why the information was not widely available?"

Loget and Quilo exchanged a glance, and presumably some hidden, Second-Realm conversation. Chag considered leaning back to ask Atla if that was legal, but thought better of it when he saw the scowl on Pevan's face.

Quilo said, "Keshnu reached agreement with Wolpan Fullus that the presence of his contingent would be kept secret until the Abyss was better understood. It was feared by both parties that rumours about a Realm-spanning fault or a large contingent of Children of the Wild taking up residence in the First Realm could cause widespread fear or individual overreactions which might have ultimately been damaging to the Treaty of Peace."

Taslin stepped sideways, away from Rel, and turned to face him, putting her back to the bench. "My only instruction about the question of Vessit was to prevent any rumour starting that the Abyss presented a threat to human civilians."

Pevan shot Chag a worried glance. He patted her shoulder, and she all but slapped his hand away. She turned back to the trial before Chag's face tightened in response. He'd only been trying to offer a little comfort.

"I accept the general point." Rel didn't sound as if he was accepting final sentencing, but he waited for a long time before continuing. "However, I am one of the most strongly Gifted Clearseers among my kind. Given the broad danger posed by the Abyss, and the frequency with which I have in the past made far-reaching Clearviewings, it was inevitable that eventually I would have stumbled across some part of the future which touched on the Abyss. Had I and others of my Gift known of it, our talents may also have been useful in foreseeing problems related to the Abyss. We might have been able to aid Keshnu's investigation."

Rel's shoulders rose, slowly, then fell again. He was about to speak when Quilo held up a hand. On the far side of the room, by the internal door, the Court Guards stepped forward from their posts and turned around, as if expecting the door to open. Quilo said. "Please excuse us a moment."

To Chag's surprise, Rel looked straight at him, and there was outright fear in the Clearseer's eyes. Then he, too, turned to face the door. Taslin stepped in past him, to stand so that her body half-shielded his.

Chag turned to Pevan. "Should we-?" She shook her head before he could finish.

The door vanished. Ashtenzim stood in the opening, most of its long, willowy tendrils dangling like legs from its knotty core. A couple stroked along the lintel, moving enough that it didn't look like the Wilder was hanging from them , but not enough that they didn't seem stuck to it.

A fist tightened in Chag's viscera. Maybe that was why Rel had been so troubled to see them. What was Ashtenzim doing here? The Separatist spokesbeing drifted into the room, making even less of an attempt to look like it was walking than it normally did. Behind, the tangle of rings that was Lienia scrunched itself narrow to fit through the opening, then widened out again. The rattle of metal on metal that Lienia's appearance made Chag anticipate never came. It was almost as if they had chosen to rub their inhumanity in the Gift-Givers' faces.

When they'd sent Chag to spy on the Gift-Givers, the Separatists had told him that they could not do the task themselves because the Court by its nature was inimical to them. If this visit was part of Delaventrin's plan, Chag had never been told of it. Could things really have gone so drastically wrong?

Ashtenzim and Lienia took positions facing the trial. From the flickering expressions on Quilo's face - Chag concentrated, trying to impress as much detail on his memory as possible in case he needed to Witness it later - invisible communication was flying back and forth between the factions.

Pevan tugged on his sleeve and pointed to Rel. With a hand tucked behind his back, the Clearseer was repeating the same three gestures, over and over; circling one finger vertically, shaking a hand, held flat, horizontally, then a clenched fist. Situation not under control. Chag nodded to Pevan, then glanced at Atla. The Guide was white as a sheet, transfixed. Beyond him, in the corner of the room, the shape of the Guard had grown less distinct, wreathed in shifting colours as it prepared for action.

Chag shifted in his seat, trying to work out which way to duck. With Atla to his right and Pevan to his left, he didn't have a whole lot of room in which to move. Tangling with either of them could cause a fatal delay.

In a voice so toneless it almost lacked vowels completely, Ashtenzim hissed, "Relvin Atcar, Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan are Separatists and have renounced the Treaty of Peace."

"I have not!" Rel's shout rang from the vaulted roof and struck jingles from the chandelier.

"The three named will avail themselves of our protection. We have no interest in the other human."

Pevan stood, and Chag followed her automatically, expecting her to head for Ashtenzim before the Guards could grab them. She stood her ground, and said, "Rel?" The one syllable gave her no chance to falter, but she needed no such advantage. She spoke the Clearseer's name as if it were a stone launched from a sling. Chag's throat tightened.

Behind his back, Rel made the flat-palmed negative sign. There was venom in his voice when he said, "I am here by authority of Taslin of the Gift-Givers, not the Treaty."

"You will stay in my custody." Taslin matched Rel's tone, and some sort of ripple burst out of Ashtenzim. Chag flinched. Rel bent double as it hit him. Taslin caught him, even as Pevan sprang forward to help. She stopped short as soon as the reflex let up.

Everything stilled for a moment, then Ashtenzim's voice again, like a hammer, "Pevan Atcar and Chag Van Raighan will avail themselves of our protection."

Chag looked to Pevan, but her eyes were fixed on Rel. Atla shrugged. The Gift-Givers were focussed on the Separatists. The moment Chag started to walk forwards, every eye seemed to be on him. He thought he could even feel the weight of Ashtenzim's and Lienia's attention. Cold and uncompromising though they were, the Separatists still held the best hope for the future.

Pevan caught hold of his arm. "Where are you going?" Her tone made the question something very close to a threat.

He glared at her. "To join our allies."

"The Separatists?" For almost the first time since he'd led her into the Separatists' cave, she looked like she was losing her cool. It was almost satisfying to see her so on edge, eyes jumping back and forth between him and the trial, face pale. When she spoke again, it was quickly, breathlessly. "Chag, you can't do that! We have no idea what's at play here. What do they want to do with us?"

"Isn't this exactly the kind of situation that justifies Separation?" He waved his hands to encompass the whole room. "Wildren politics with human lives in the balance. Gifted attacking Wildren because the Wildren couldn't understand the situation well enough to explain. It has to end."

"And what about what Taslin said?" From somewhere, Pevan found a remnant of her familiar intensity. "I still want some answers about the Separation before I'm prepared to commit to it."

"Only one place to get them." He folded his arms, jerking his head in Ashtenzim's direction.

"Both of you will come with us." Chag winced, wishing the Separatist had moderated its voice a little.

Its tone had clearly irritated Pevan. "I'm not leaving until I get some answers. What will your Separation do to the First Realm?"

"Woah, hang on." He held up a hand in front of her, then turned to face the Wildren. "How about a compromise, Ashtenzim. We'll meet with you somewhere within the Court and we can make sure we're all on the same page. Then if needs be, we can see what we can do about Rel."

The air between the Gift-Givers and the Separatists blurred with angry communication. Chag found himself edging backwards. It wasn't supposed to be possible for Second-Realm terrain to become that unstable in the Court. Taslin pulled Rel back, the Clearseer still hugging his abdomen. What had Ashtenzim done to him?

Colours that stung the eye began to flicker in the distortion. Quilo's face was impassive, but Loget's had grown twisted, well past rage and into an expression that could only mean the inquisitor had lost control of his visual appearance. It was only communication, not violence, that was passing between them and the Separatists, but in the Second Realm the line between the two was thinner than in the First.

When it ended, it did so so suddenly that Chag almost dived for the floor. He heard Pevan's sharp intake of breath ringing from the chandelier. In the wake of that single, lonely sound, though, the room collectively relaxed. The Guards settled back into their more definite, humanoid forms. Quilo actually took his eyes off Ashtenzim.

"Your compromise is accepted, Chag Van Raighan." Had Ashtenzim's voice actually softened a little? Chag glanced at Pevan, gestured for her to proceed him. She stuck him with her best rock-splitting glare and straightened upright, folding her arms. In the end, he led the way. It was just easier than waiting for her patience to give out.

* * *

Next Episode

Monday, 18 March 2013


Piracy is always a hot topic in the post-digital creative industries. Views differ, sometimes on generational lines, sometimes not. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that piracy increases (or can increase) an author's (or other creator's) sales and revenue - here's one notable example - but many people have an instinctive reaction against their work being stolen or pirated.

I'm not here today to weigh in on that (though given that you can have all my writing for free at the moment, it should be pretty clear where I stand). Instead, I want to take a step back and look at the language we use about copyright infringement, and specifically the terms 'piracy' and 'stealing'.

I got onto this topic because I realised I couldn't see the clear connection between piracy-on-the-high-seas-type-piracy and copyright infringement. Old-fashioned as it might be, I take it as a principle that we should only accept a 'new' meaning of a term if there's a good reason for using that term rather than coming up with a new one, so I felt this question bore some looking at.

At first, I thought it might have something to do with so-called pirate radio stations, at least some of which did engage in the unlicensed broadcasting of copyrighted material, but it's actually much older than that. The complete OED (which I can't link to, because I only have access through my university) lists the earliest use of the term 'pirate' to mean the making of illegal copies of something as dating from 1603.

But why? 'Piracy' (or its etymological stem) has meant robbery at sea since Roman times, though it comes from a Greek root variously translated as 'to attempt', 'to experience' or 'to assault'. Now, the writer using the term in 1603 may well have been aware of the Greek link to 'experience', but I can't believe that was foremost in his mind in using the term. It seems to me far more likely that this was a figurative use, cognate with 'vagabond', 'brigand' or 'scoundrel'. In other words, the term was being used to dismiss and belittle the people to whom it was being applied.

That may have been unproblematic (quite possibly even fair) in the social climate of the 17th century, but times have changed. Whether or not we acknowledge it, we're in the middle of a serious cross-cultural debate about the balance between creator and audience rights. We can no longer afford loaded and pejorative name-calling. It will cripple the debate.

Fair enough, you might say, but it's not that pejorative in this case. After all, piracy is robbery at sea, 'content piracy' is robbery online - there's a connection there, isn't there? Copyright infringement is still stealing, isn't it?

Well, that's a more subtle question than it might seem. The digital copyright infringement that we're talking about is certainly the taking of something without the legal right to do so, so from a legal point of view, it's stealing. But if we define 'stealing' in purely legal terms, then we can't use the term outside of a legal context, and so we can't explain why the law prohibits stealing. Remember, it's the legal context which is being questioned here. Much of the debate about copyright is about what legal measures should be taken to protect the various parties with an interest in digital content.

Law should follow from principle, otherwise any law is as good as any other. What does 'stealing' mean outside of a legal context? If we can't define it as 'taking something illegally', what can we define it as?

Well, the principle underpinning the concept of stealing is the concept of property - the idea that individuals can own objects (not a universally popular idea, by the way). Stealing, then, is most naturally regarded as the taking of something from someone against their wishes (no, libertarians, taxes don't count - you consent to taxes by continuing to live in the country levying them).

Here's where it gets tricky. If you make an illegal copy of one of my stories, what have you taken from me? You haven't taken the story - I still have a copy, indeed a potentially infinite set of copies, of my own. And I can't say you've taken the money I would have made if you'd paid for it, because that money has at no point been my property. All that's been removed is the possibility of my making some money from selling that story to you.

I won't bring up the (somewhat facile) question of whether a possibility can be property - it's rather more abstract than I need to be to make my point. My point is this: we can't be sure that possibility has been removed, for two reasons. First, we can't be sure that it ever existed, since it might be the case that the only way you'd ever consider looking at my work is if you could get it for free. Second, we can't be sure it's ceased to exist, since you may subsequently love my work enough to decide to pay for it later.

Let's now go back to the question of legal framework, working up from this discussion of principle. The law requires you to prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone is guilty, otherwise they are presumed innocent. If we build our concept of copyright theft on this principle, then to prove theft, you have to prove that there was a possibility that you might buy my book (relatively unproblematic), but that now there is no such possibility (which I can see absolutely no way at all to do - if nothing else, to prove this, I would have to prove that my book isn't good enough to inspire your future loyalty to me, something that strikes me as a very poor marketing decision).

Maybe we're getting a bit far away from anything resembling a practical contribution to the debate. Let me bring it back to this point: the terms we use to brand people are powerful, problematic things. In the copyright debate, the law is far too cloudy, and too much of the lobbying actually carried out on behalf of vampiric third parties rather than the creators and audiences who have legitimate stakes in the matter, for us to be able to afford terminology that's going to put people's backs up.

The whole principle of a writer's life should be to never use words without thinking about them. Think about 'piracy' and 'stealing' before you start getting worked up about them, whether you're applying them to others or they're being applied to you.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The WEIRD story so far...

Before I move on with the WEIRD theme, I want to do a bit of summing up and pulling-together of threads.

I started out with a discussion of cultural relativism, imperialism and human rights. There, I highlighted the unsatisfactory clash between relativism and human rights - that is, that if we want to say there are universal human rights, then we must be prepared to condemn the cultures whose values disagree - but also the danger of imperialism, the danger of forcing values on a culture (or individual) which are grounded in our own assumptions rather than any kind of universal principle.

We can think of this second danger as a risk of oppression. The risk is that, for some definition of 'legitimate', we may prevent other people making legitimate choices simply because those choices make us uncomfortable and we find ourselves in positions of power. For example, a favourite question of moral philosophers is whether it's ever OK to stop someone doing, for pleasure, something that harms theirself and no-one else (my A-level teacher's example of this was a group of men who used to get together to nail their scrotums to things for masochistic pleasure, and I still cringe every time I type that sentence...). Do people have a right to seek pleasure at their own expense? What limits should we put on this, if any? This is too big and complicated a question for this post, though.

What I've been asking, throughout the series, is whether there are some values which can be upheld as human rights, or as universal in some other way - that is, are there any values which we can always say it's better to have, or at least worse to lack? One test (perhaps even the only test) that any such value must pass, then, is the test of oppression; we can think of this as the question 'Will this value, if universalised, restrict the choices of those on whom it is imposed in any unacceptable way?'

And I've gone on to argue that the quartet of WEIRD values (Education, Industrialisation, Richness/wealth and Democracy) pass this test, despite what we might otherwise think. Specifically, I showed that, properly construed, they could only increase freedom. It's not necessarily trivially true that an increase in actual freedom involves no oppression, but that's a question that I'll return to in another post. Here, in summary, are the arguments I've presented:

Education. I defined the essence of education as the ability to perceive the existence of multiple conflicting value systems (eg. political ideologies, religions etc.), combined with the ability to analyse these systems relative to one's own character. My claim, ultimately, is that without these two abilities, one cannot truly hold any value at all, since one's choice can only have come from chance, or indoctrination. A value-choice must be autonomous to count, and without taking a critical, multidimensional approach to such a choice, autonomy is blindfolded.

Industrialisation. I definied industrialisation as a kind of efficiency - the ability to do more with less effort. As such it cannot be other than a lifting of limits on choice. Efficiency is not always a major factor in value choices, but it always helps, and sometimes it is essential to a desirable outcome (as, for example, if you must choose which of two different charities, one for cancer research and the other for child poverty, to give a portion of your limited disposable income to - if you could earn and/or live more efficiently, you'd have a greater disposable income and be able to support both causes).

Richness. I defined wealth as means. That is, the means to implement some or all of one's value decisions. A value decision without action is empty and meaningless - it is action which forms the content of the decision. If you lack the means to act on a given value (for example, I am not in a position to afford any of the procedures which would give meaning to my assertion of extropian values), then you can hold that value in only the most attenuated way. To put it another way, poverty - the lack of means - is an oppressor (a theme to which I'll return). Greater personal means can never be a bad thing, though of course one can do more bad things with greater means, which brings us to...

Democracy. In many ways, the tricky one. Democracy does limit choices, by definition; it is about people reaching compromises between each other's desires, each giving up part of what they want. On the other hand, what they get in exchange, in theory, is freedom from having the choices of others imposed on them. Think of it like this: in true democracy, one freely agrees to limit one's own choices in exchange for everyone else doing the same, so that no-one actually forces a choice on anyone else (obviously, this is a highly idealised picture of human affairs, but this is a debate about principle, not practice).

Perhaps I've used these terms in slightly revisionary ways, though I hope I've justified my revisions in the individual posts; at least, I don't think my definitions are any worse than the conventional understandings. Going forward, I'll be looking at why this unifying theme of freedom and wider choice is important. I'll start by looking at what 'freedom' might actually mean.

Monday, 11 March 2013


This seems to be typical of the growing hubbub around Google Glass. Pretty much every article I've read about it has been positive on the functionality - I've certainly seen no complaints from anyone who's actually used the thing - but everyone seems to start and finish by saying something along the lines of 'but would you really be willing to be seen out in public wearing one?'

Before I get into the meat of my problem with this response, there are a few remarks it's worth making. Firstly, there is a legitimate worry over privacy with Glass when it goes live - I can foresee incidents (and there are anecdotes of things like this already) where people object to talking to someone wearing Glass because there's no way to tell if they're filming or not. It's tempting to dismiss these people as the 21st-century equivalent of that old chestnut about 'savages' fearing the cameras of the white man because they seemed to take a piece of their soul, but there is a legitimate concern here (though personally, I feel modern culture is more than a little too obsessed with its privacy). That's not what I want to talk about today, though, since I haven't yet worked out exactly where I stand on the issue.

The other two things I want to point out have more to do with why I think this worrying over image is just hot air to fill column inches. First off, I know a fair number of musicians, and an increasing number of them have forsworn discreet, unobtrusive in-ear earphones for their iPods and what have you, because the sound quality and comfort are much better on a full headset (I'd probably do the same, to be honest, except that I basically never use an mp3 player for anything). The versions of Glass that currently exist all seem far less visible than a massive Sennheiser headset.

Secondly, there's been some speculation over whether Glass can do anything really useful, or whether it will just be a luxury toy. I don't think we'd be seeing any doubts about aesthetics without this more basic doubt, but the basic doubt seems to me a hopelessly out-of-touch, backward-thinking phenomenon. It sounds altogether too much like the scepticism over smartphones five years ago, or personal computers twenty-five.

We have no idea what Glass is capable of once unleashed. We won't really know until it's been out for a few months. But I guarantee you this; within a year of its release, there will be people - probably a huge number - as absolutely reliant on Glass as they are now on their smartphones. Within five years, Glass (and whatever competitors for it Sony and Apple dream up) will be as common as smartphones. As far as I'm concerned, the success of Glass, and the disappearance of complaints about its appearance, are inevitable.

So why, even in top-line tech commentary, is there so much fuss over the way Glass looks? I can't remember ever hearing so much negativity about the look of a product in its prerelease hype. In some quarters, the aesthetic seems to be the sole negative anyone mentions.

I'll grant that most Apple products have a heavy (and, frankly, ludicrous) hype over their elegant aesthetics as a selling point (because they've got to find some way to shift their control-freakery and overpricing), but mostly our technology is utilitarian at best in the aesthetic department, and the subject doesn't come up.

Again, headphones are relevant; it's the only other time I can remember any doubts about aesthetics coming up, and that case is rather different - headphone technology started for the purposes of things like studio recording, then made the jump to streetwear (and yes, only after some significant work was done on aesthetics - my dad has an old pair of headphones, probably from the late 70s or early 80s, that I definitely wouldn't be willing to wear in public, but then they weren't designed for public use).

I probably wouldn't be bothered by this question nearly so much if I wasn't a lifelong myopic. I was first prescribed glasses for distance reading at age 7 after complaining of finding the blackboard hard to read in class. Less than a year later, I was in glasses full-time, putting them on when I woke up and taking them off only to shower or go back to bed. I'd have worn them in the shower too, except that glasses covered in water and/or steam are worse than even my near-useless natural lenses.

Of course, that meant being on the receiving end of all the familiar name-calling at school (seen this, by the way?) - 'foureyes', 'speccy', 'nerd' etc. It feels to me like all these doubts about Glass come from the same sentiment, the idea that there's something wrong with wearing glasses (that's not to say I won't get my eyes lasered as and when I can afford it - I stick to my guns).

And I kind of hoped we were past this as a culture. Up to a third of the population of the world are myopic, depending on the estimate used. That makes it possibly the most widespread disability in the species (and, though normally mild and easily re-enabled, it is an impairment). And for most of the last fifteen years, the world's richest man has been a bespectacled nerd, while the products he created and the revolution they led have transformed our lives in ways that beggar thought.

Why are we still worrying about this? I have real trouble understanding why anyone, looking at Glass, doesn't immediately think 'Oh, wow, COOL. I wonder what they'll think of to do with that?' (Okay, I get that some people will see it and respond with fear - 'what will people do to me with that?' - but that's got nothing to do with aesthetics either).

I take small comfort, though, in the knowledge that as a speccy, I have nothing to lose by getting Glass. I'll be getting Glassed as soon as I can afford glasses with the technology built-in or clipped-on. Of course, since Google seem intent on making a deal with some designer label to provide high-end prescription Glass glasses, it'll probably be a while before I can afford the tech (I wish Google would instead sell a clip-on model, even if it's a clip-on that requires complicated calibration in a shop somewhere, since designer spectacle frames are one of the most pointless and extravagant wastes of money on the high street).

Thursday, 7 March 2013

WEIRD Democracy

(WEIRD series introduction; Education; Industrialisation; Riches; Conclusion)

This is going to get a bit confusing. I'm quite a critic of Western democracy, but I think most people are still relatively in favour of it (or at least take Churchill's line that "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."). I'm now going to argue that all these opinions are based on a bad concept of democracy, and that when you dig deeper, you do get to a value that can be prescribed universally along with the rest of the WEIRD set.

Let's start with the problem: do you actually feel represented by the people you voted for to represent you? The answer, in all likelihood, is 'no', and with some justification.

Our periodic-vote, representative system of democracy (of which the governments of all the major Western nations, as far as I'm aware, are versions) has two problems: political campaigns are expensive, and we rely on the mass media industry to tell us about them. In essence, money and screen time are the biggest influencers of the results. The rich and well-connected are much more likely to end up in office, and if the last five years have shown us anything at all, it's that most of them simply don't understand what life is like for those less fortunate.

It's not universally true. But the very fact that we need news stories like that one underlines the point very nicely.

There's a clue to the underlying issue if we go back to that Churchill quote, specifically this bit: '[D]emocracy is the worst form of government'. It's when we think of democracy purely as a method of choosing our leaders that we get problems. In philosophical circles, it's oft-discussed, somewhat tritely, that the ancient Greeks who 'invented' democracy did not employ our concept of representation, instead allowing all citizens (though not all people) a vote on policy matters - this works when you've only got 30-60,0000 citizens, but not for a country of 60million like Britain. But there is something useful to take from the Greeks; they coined the term 'democracy', which comes from demos (people) and kratia (power/rule). 'People Power'.

Doesn't actually sound a lot like democracy as we know it, right? How many times have you felt powerless in the face of your government recently? For me, pretty much everything I've been aware of my government doing from the decision to go to war in Iraq onwards has been something I'd rather they not do.

What I'm getting at is this: true democracy, true people power, looks more like

This is a point well-made in this article that I linked right at the start of this series;
"If WEIRD college students aren’t voting in large numbers, for example, and feel profoundly alienated from politics, isn’t it problematic to think of ‘democracy’ as shaping their attitudes? I’d be more inclined to say we should examine the landless farmers in Brazil I worked with while studying the Landless Movement to understand ‘democratic’ populations. They had long community meetings modeled on the labour movement or anarchist movement to come to decisions. I doubt my university students in the US had experienced anything nearly as ‘democratic.’"
Are we really that democratic in the West? By some measures, voter apathy is at an all-time high. We feel disenfranchised, even if technically we're blessed with the most open franchises in history. Heck, for the first time in a very long time, the UK government is a coalition, and it's one that no-one who voted for any of the parties involved ever imagined they were voting for.

The point is, we're not engaged. Democracy is engagement with the dictates and processes of society. It's about knowing what's happening in your society and the world as a whole, understanding how it will affect you, and taking steps to change things whose effects you're unhappy with.

If education is about the ability to make judgements about a value and to hold some values as one's own, and industry and wealth are about the ability to act on value judgements, we can see democracy as the crucial final step of harmonising our judgements and actions with those of others. It's about setting limits on our freedoms so that we don't transgress the freedoms of others. It's also about coordination - if you aren't able to do something by yourself, you can engage with others to find like-minded people to work with.

A favourite refrain of post-modern cultural relativists is that some cultures (apparently the Chinese in particular, or at least so I'm always being told) favour authoritarian governance to democracy, and that may be the case in terms of a system of governance, but I don't believe it's the case more widely. You can have democracy in our sense under an absolute ruler provided that ruler can be induced to listen to his/her people (and, lest we get all high and mighty about our democracies, how often do our leaders listen to us?).

All through this series, I've been out to demonstrate that there's no risk of oppression by cultural imperialism in prescribing these values for all cultures. In fact, I've been trying to show that the WEIRD values are the best way to prevent oppression. And democracy, fundamentally, is (should be) about finding compromises that everyone can accept - policies that everyone can endorse and thus no-one feels oppressed by (note: there's a difference between 'not getting everything you want' and 'oppression', something far too many radicals on all sides would do well to remember).