Tuesday, July 16, 2019

dream time

Before he died, Uncle James wrote me this lovely letter. He wasn't really my uncle, he was just this rare thing, an old friend of my mother's who was also my friend. He lived in a rundown old cottage in the middle of nowhere somewhere near Brecon. He had been a quite well known british classical composer of that odd kind of post-vaughan-williams type of music, never as radical as Schoenberg or as out-and-out crazy as Boulez or Stockhausen, or as trendy and minimal as Steve Reich.

James was worried that his 40 year-old digital clock was dreaming. While it hadn't told the time properly for two decades, he kept it as the only form of electronic technology he had ever (before he retired) found useful.

For most of the 1990s, it had remained completely blank, but then suddenly, one morning he noticed that it was showing some strange symbols that could be read as a word. He got out his welsh dictionary and discovered that indeed, bwrw was a common term for rain. Unsurprising, he thought. but then a digital clock that predicted the weather, no matter how predictable, was (like the proverbial poor chess playing dog) surprising.

However, the next day, the clock read ffliw. And James promptly sneezed and was laid up for two weeks, until he recovered. Feeling much better, he decided to cheer himself up and his wife Mary, by writing a spring tune. The clock ticked,  and read duw. He had just been thinking of something inspired by religion.

James wrote to me, because, as he explained, I was the only person he knew who might be able to explain how a 1970s digital clock, probably made in China, was suddenly behaving like one of the cleverest AIs in the world.  I was lost for words. It was very sad that he had discovered an emergent being that, while locked in such an unprepossessing box, was expressive and helpful. I did not want to tell anyone about this at the Turing Institute, as they would descend on James lovey cottage with their logic analyzers and Turing tests, and would no doubt kill the goose that was laying such golden eggs.

Not long after this, James died, and Mary moved to Cornwall and threw out all his memorabilia, so maybe the clock is in some landfill somewhere. But maybe it is still dreaming on someone's bedside table, offering hints in a timely way on how their day may go. An accidental oracle from the orient.

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