The Null Device


Britain's Home Office, still reeling from the Blunkett scandal, has been dealt a fresh blow when the Law Lords ruled that indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects is unlawful, by an 8-to-1 majority. The government is to review its options.

I wonder whether they thought of taking a leaf out of the US's book and moving the detainees outside of Britain proper. The few remaining fragments of the British Empire could lend themselves to small-scale, high-security penal colonies, sufficiently inaccessible to add to their security. Possible locations for a British Guantanamo could include:

  • Diego Garcia; an island in the Indian Ocean, forcibly depopulated in the 1960s and now leased to the US as a military base. An agreement could possibly be reached with the US to establish a high-security prison facility there. In fact, the US is rumoured to already have such facilities there.
  • Saint Helena, for the historical resonance.
  • Pitcairn Island; it could do with publicity for something other than sexual abuse.

Of course, Britain doesn't have as free a hand with extraterritorial penal facilities as the US does, because of that meddlesome European Convention on Human Rights (which, a court has found, even applies to British troops in Iraq), which could complicate these options. Though if, as claimed, the detainees are foreign nationals with no right to residency in Britain, they could possibly be handed off to a compliant foreign government to look after. The US would be a good choice (they have the facilities, after all), though other members of the Coalition of Willing could be looked at. Australia, for example, could repurpose some of its extraterritorial refugee holding centres.

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TinyP2P, a (not particularly scalable) peer-to-peer file-sharing application in 15 lines of Python. Expected to be printed on T-shirts by cypherpunk dissident types when such programs become illegal, while the rest of the world shrugs, says "those geeks are weird" and gets back to their Trusted Computing pay-per-play Windows Media singles.

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Macular degeneration is an incurable disorder of the eye, affecting mainly elderly people and causing partial blindness. The curious thing about it is that, in some cases, sufferers see vivid hallucinations. (via MindHacks)

When Don was visiting the graveyard where his wife is buried, he sat for a while on a bench. He suddenly saw one end of the church on the far side of the cemetery become illuminated. Then there appeared great crowds of figures of both sexes and in all manner of dresses moving in a stately way towards the church this time they were not advancing towards him. They entered the large area of illumination and vanished.
A further visual effect which Don considered to be rather spectacular was the disappearance of people in front of him, especially presenters on stage in lecture situations. First the persons head would vanish and then the torso, yet Don would be able to see the background behind where the now invisible figure was standing with perfect, uninterrupted clarity.

It is speculated that the hallucinations, which are known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, are caused by the brain attempting to fill the gaps in its input, interpolating the noise coming from malfunctioning eyes with past experience. Which, of course, happens all the time, except in normal circumstances, the input is more or less trustworthy. It is also believed that many more people suffer from the condition than would admit to it, lest others consider them to be going insane.

If such a condition is possible, it raises the question of how much of our everyday experience do we really get from our senses, and how much do our brains infer. I've seen the claim that the human eye's output is far too poor to give the vivid images we perceive, and much of our perception is the result of post-processing in the brain. Could the bulk of our perceived reality be hallucination, which, in normal conditions, happens to work usefully?

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I went along to Dorkbot tonight, which was fun.

It started off with Mike Harrison's demonstration of "The Dreaded Destruct-O-Tron"; basically, a box with a huge capacitor that can be connected to various things, including an induction coil, and, when discharged, does evil things to anything metallic in close proximity to it. Harrison demonstrated it crushing soft-drink cans, launching hard disk platters at 300MPH, and, to popular applause, destroying a few copies of the recent Band Aid single. He also had a DVD of footage taken with a high-speed camera (at thousands of frames per second) of what happens to the hapless objects in question.

The "Exploring the Libido with an Analogue Computer" segment was a bit of comedy, somewhere between Benny Hill and Look Around You, in which a balding scientist type used an electromechanical computing device (an arrangement of motors and gears from a 1960s-vintage flight simulator) as a model of his sex drive, and afterwards, proceeded to demonstrate a spark generator connected to a 1980s portable computer programmed to detect raspberry-like noises, as a uniquely British answer to high-tech Japanese toilets. And yes, it's every bit as puerile as it sounds.

Possibly the most interesting part of the evening was Aymeric Mansoux's demonstration of his experiments with Pd; he basically had videos of Pd patches which gathered data (such as traceroutes to hosts or web server loads) and converted them into pretty good Autechre-esque music, along with visuals which wouldn't look amiss on a Warp DVD. Amusingly enough, the traceroute to looked and sounded rather dark and ominous.

The "Dorkestra", which consisted of people making noises was a bit hit-and-miss, being much like the What Is Music? festival in Melbourne. One guy was doing "optical analogue synthesis" with cooling fans and LEDs, which sounds impressive, except that the only sounds he seemed to make sounded somewhere between air-raid sirens and circular saws. Had he been able to play a tune, I would have been impressed.

There was also a raffle with free entry, largely to get rid of two BBC Micros. I didn't win either of them; I'm undecided as to whether that's a good or bad thing.

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