Friday, 22 May 2015

The stark truth

Verity found herself in her Mind Palace, with Reid. 

There was something he had been dying to show her. “You gotta see this, you gotta...” his New-World enthusiasm was touching. She had agreed to go and see it. 

As they walked in from the terrace, she could instantly tell that something was amiss. There was the familiar enfilade with its beautiful, eccentric rooms, as elaborately decked-out as ever with her voluminous, unmarketable knowledge. Everything looked exactly as it should.  But there were unwelcome overtones. As if she were viewing the scene accompanied with a depressing or disturbing soundtrack.  It was almost as if it were not her own mind any more. 

Reid was indicating something: a black, crystal-like connector on the door-frame of the Music Room. A black cable led from it, along the skirting, apparently all the way through the enfilade of which the Music Room formed part. Verity didn’t recall having seen either cable or connector before. Reid was explaining that it was a new installation: every British mind was to be fitted with one, and she was privileged to be among the first. 

“How do they know it works, then? If it’s new? And how do they know it won’t do me any harm?” 

No answers. She would have to ask again, more gently, in a minute or two. English Method. 

“D’you know, we couldn’t have these in the States: not Constitutional. But you Brits, you’re gonna get the first, you’re gonna be the pioneers. Just figure: you, out-pioneering us! I’m real envious, you know” 

They walked along the enfilade: all Verity’s References, her Language Lab., even the damaged Portrait Gallery, which she finally had no qualms about showing Reid since he already knew about her inability to recognise faces, were wired-up with the black cables. 

And in every room, as Reid seemed proud to point out, fine threads linked each item to the connector near the door.  Every book in her References, every disc in the Language Lab., every portrait, even every joke in the joke store. Grizzly with his AK-47 notwithstanding. 

Hey, how did they get in there, through the Password-protect? 

Verity touched one of the threads: it stuck to her hand and felt unpleasant, and stretched a little as she tried to let go of it. But it didn’t snap. 

“Can they be disconnected?” 

“No. They’re hard-wired” 

“What’s it for? I mean, why go to the trouble of installing this at all?”
“It’s like this, Verity. What is it, well, was it, in your mind, that was all-pervasive? That, kinda oversaw all the knowledge, all the skills, that you have?  Dictated your attitude to everything you know? Huh?” 

Verity was stumped 

“Fair enough: I guess that’s like asking a fish what water tastes like. It was your conscience. Nothing in here, in this Palace or Grounds, remained untouched by it, huh?” 

“No, I suppose not. I always bring it with me whenever I’m thinking about, well, anything, really. Except absolutely abstract stuff like Maths problems or Crosswords. Plus I don’t think my dreams always obey it” 

“Well I’ve got news for you: not everybody has a conscience that works as well as yours did: that is as controlling as yours was. For example: you always tell the truth, don’t you?” 

“Did?...Was?...Past tense?  Is that because I, well I had to, I lied at Sanmonto, and in front of you when you were asking about, about my experiences in Russia. And, I let the Minister of Agriculture carry on believing that I was...was...” Verity suddenly remembered that Reid didn’t know about her stint as the Bony Woman of Death, and stopped mid-sentence: looked at her feet. 

“OK, grant the exceptions for your own or others’ self-preservation” he smiled. 

Yes, that’s a kind way of looking at it I suppose. Preservation of life... 

But Verity was mortified about having lied. Perhaps she needed a new Conscience after all. 

“So, like I was saying: this new installation is a replacement, an upgrade if you like, for Conscience. It’s, kinda more standardized: more reliable. Compatible with every mind, no matter how small or dysfunctional. We call it the Enhanced Conscience” 

Verity didn’t like the sound of that 

“How does it work, then?” 

“These threads that you see, link everything to the central node in your Communications Room” 

They were walking towards it as Reid was explaining: all the information in her mind would find its way to one point. Verity didn’t think that sounded like a good idea, like a good communications architecture: what if that one point were to fail somehow? Or get sabotaged, or hacked? A mind was supposed to work as a distributed network, after all: it worked by associations. 

There was the node: a giant black crystal on a slim metallic-looking stand. It was slightly transparent: Verity found, looking right into its depths, that it had a dark red glow at its heart. Not unlike the glow on an AudioCard in Record mode. 

And there was a thick cable leading away from it, out of the room

“Where does that go?” she asked nervously. 

Oh, perhaps there’s a back-up somewhere? That would be sensible... 
“Oh, I think you can guess where” 

Verity blanched: the image of her thoughts showed up on the walls. Radomes: giant dishes. 

“Yes, that’s where it goes: all of it. And when it gets there, it’s all stored. Forever. It’s cross-referenced with everyone else’s: all automatically searched for connections, patterns, habits. It’ll be infinitely searchable when the project’s completed, including searching backward in time_” 

He was brought up short by the expression on Verity’s face 

“Hey, why the horrors?” 

“Isn’t it...obvious? I...sort of...everyone would know everything” 

“But isn’t that a good thing? The sharing of knowledge_” 

“Not that sort of knowledge, no. And, I don’t know, the people who get to see it...get to see everything in my Mind Palace. Personal things: private things. I mean, if it happened to you, wouldn’t it, give you the creeps?” 

“No. I’ve got nothing to hide_” 

“The stuff you told me about your mind being bi-stable? That’s personal, isn’t it? And, er, your entire past career? Doesn’t it, make you feel bad? If you, er, met somebody and realised you, cared about them and wanted with them...wouldn’t you, at least, want to tell them about your your own time? Not, have it up there for all to see?” 

“Oh, it’s not for all to see, you misunderstand. Don’t worry: it’s only a very few people get to see this. Only the Team there, who’ve got Clearance: it’s Top Secret” 

“Wait a minute! In our country’s law, if something, anything, gets classified Top Secret, then it’s illegal to tell it to anyone! So, I won’t be able to, tell anyone, what’s on my mind! Or share my knowledge_” 

“Now you’re not being serious_” 

“I am! Really! The law says, even if the person you’re telling has other ways of finding out the information, heck, even if they already know the information, if it’s you that told them, then, technically, you’ve broken the law. You can go and look it up if you don’t believe me!” 

“Oh come on! How many people will have been prosecuted for a thing like that?” 

I don’t know!”, said Verity peevishly, “It’s...probably an Official Secret!” 

Reid tried a new tack. 

“Look, tell you what all this will mean eventually: no more lies! Least, not about anything important, like terrorism or crime. Imagine, no more need for those kinds of interrogations I used to do, that you got so upset about_” 

“But there isn’t anyway! Firstly, they didn’t give you any useful information, that’s what came out in that Senate report, and second, there’s the English Method! And till we get enough people fluent in that, there’s what we use in Britain at the moment: it’s called  P.E.A.C.E.*: it’s non-confrontational and it works, really well!” 

“But think of how much easier all that’s gonna be if they already have all this background information. And, to help the fight against international crime, terrorism, all the information is automatically shared with_” 

“Don’t tell me let me guess: our Allies. Interrogators, like you” 

Reid was smiling 

“...It’ll be like, the truth’s, laid bare_” 


Verity put her hands across her chest, ran behind the black crystal and called, desperately, for more clothes. 

None came. 

She sprinted off to the Music Room: remembered there was something there that she could use. Yes, there it was: soft, alive, silent with its golden embroidery. She wrapped her Right To Silence round her, fastened it above her chest like a big warm sarong, and walked back to carry on her conversation with Reid. 

Only, she couldn’t say anything! 

She could hear Reid, though. He seemed most amused by the whole thing. Perhaps, she thought, he was finally getting the hang of Irony. 

And there was so much that she wanted to say. So much that needed said! 

The information, or the inferences drawn from it, might have mistakes in! Criminalising innocent people, or quietly ruining their careers or finances. Top Secret: no comeback... 

The information might get hacked...or corrupted... 

...or used maliciously by individuals who had access to it... 

...or simply sold-on! That was what the previous government had tried to do with everybody’s medical records, after all. 

The government might change for the worse: a malicious or venal government could do untold harm with that kind of searchable information. 

Then again, even with the best of intentions, governments and firms make mistakes: people have to organise to come out and protest against, for example, that nuclear power station someone wants to build on a fault-line, that mining which would ruin the water supply, or that sell-off which might put national security at risk. A country is a system: it needs Negative Feedback, to stay stable: stay on track... 

And above all that, it could be said, holding that much information about everyone was simply wrong in principle: people wouldn’t dare do anything. It would stifle any effort to influence government for the better, before it even started. Stifle proper Democracy... 

Reid, remember “Nineteen Eighty-four”?... 

Yes, so much that needed said... 

And here she was, with the only protection from this monstrosity being absolute silence. Raising her voice to protest against it would require her to stand stark naked before it. 

What a strange phrase, ‘Stark naked’. Where did that first word come from?...
The Stark Effect...electric field splitting the, that was just somebody’s name: its discoverer, Physicist Johannes Stark. Presumably German. Stark: German for Strong. Sister language... 

‘Strong naked’ 

You’re going to have to do this, Player. Going to have to be strong. If not you, who? 

Reid, you’re in for a bit of a shock. 

Verity reached for the top corner of her quilt... 

And woke up.

* Chapter 9 p.167,  "Investigative Interviewing", Tom Williamson (ed.), Routledge September 2013

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Moving pictures

Verity was glad of the darkness in the cinema. It hid the shocked expression on her face... it slowly dawned on her that the film she was watching, 'I Am Subject', billed ‘Conscientious SysAdmin Harry Blanchard of Harrogate goes on the run after blowing the whistle on the massive extent of intrusive data-gathering being carried out at...’, was not, actually, fiction. 

Even though the poster advertising it, which had first attracted her, depicted three classic Action Movie stereotypes: the intrepid hero with an ambiguous connection to the armed forces, the intelligent woman (with the obligatory legs) who has faith in him and who, since last year or so, makes a proper contribution to the plot, and the quiet, older man of letters who pulls strings to get the truth made public. 

Of course she had heard the name Harry Blanchard before, but she had forgotten where. She had just assumed he was a film star, and that the billboard was using the name of the actor rather than the character played. Whereas in fact, he had been the subject of an international manhunt since his shock disclosures two years previously. 

The news hadn’t really impinged on Verity’s thoughts at the time, coinciding as it did with the run-up to the elections. Then, not having heard him being interviewed, she had assumed he and his revelations were from the Evening Lands and not her own country. Her own county, as she now saw on the screen. 
There was the familiar Moors landscape, unfolding to sinister music played under the soft voice of investigative journalist Siobhan, while she recounted aspects of the complex logistics required to get a wanted man from Yorkshire to Venezuela. Via Odessa. 

The commentary moved on, to a description of the full extent of Harry’s findings. 
There were, being collected and stored, every keystroke and cursor move of every computer in the country, along with the contents, including video, of every page of the Reference accessed. The metadata plus contents of every phonecall and email. Everything from the country’s fourteen million CCTV cameras, plus social media, including ‘private’ chat. And all this tied together with voice and face recognition. Cross-referenced, searchable, ‘intelligent’. The ultimate Relational Database. 
Verity realised she would have to look up the term ‘yottabyte’* when she got home.
A firm of Reputation Management consultants had been hired to come up with a name for the project which would not sound threatening, in case some small amount of news about it ever leaked out. Following the tradition of a musical theme for such names, they christened it 'Vivaldi'.

The film’s parting shot was a reference to the fact that all this material was accessible to anyone with authorisation. And that, of course, included “our allies”, a spokesman for whom pointed out that doing the same thing to his own compatriots would be 'Unconstitutional'. Verity recognised the logo of the American Millennium Project.

‘Collect It All’...

Her heart nearly stopped. 

The walk home wasn’t going to be easy. 

* One yottabyte is 1024, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. 
For comparison: 109, or 1,000,000,000  is approximately the population of China, or the number of heartbeats a 30-year-old mortal will have had since birth.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

First thoughts

I've had consciousness
Since the head of, these three words
Said, 'Collect It All'


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Victory earnt

Reid was horrified. But he had to keep quiet. 

He had had to keep quiet for days. The news of what had happened to Verity was too distressing, yet he couldn’t show his feelings in front of anyone at Sanmonto: ruthlessness, professionalism, they called it, was a requirement for his job. The only thing that kept him going, apart from busying himself with tests and reports, was the thought of Verity saying, as she doubtless would have, “Don’t be a soft Southern git”. Would have, if she hadn’t been... He found it was all a lot more bearable in his non-Empathic state. Kept having to remind himself of his old work... 

As luck would have it, Sanmonto had a new acquisition, in the British pharmaceutical sector: he had an excuse to get himself to the UK with the Compliance machine. He might be able to use it to help Verity. Saying that he would spend an extra day there meeting ministers and members of the C.B.I. would afford him the time he needed. 

But it turned out there was no need for subterfuge. 

“And you will visit Distant Early Warning and report on her condition.  Including a video interview, on this card” was added to the final briefing he had before leaving for Europe. 

He finished his Compliance work in Reading in one day. The following morning a Business Breakfast at the C.B.I. afforded him a chance to demonstrate the Compliance machine.  For this he chose one of the most ruthless, Fear-driven C.E.O.s and a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, carefully omitting to mention that its effects would be permanent and irreversible. 

Reid had no way of knowing it, but later that day the same individual turned up at Helga’s agency looking for “something meaningful to do with my business skills” and landed a top post in the U.N. Environment Programme that had been empty for months, pushing through a new Reforestation project on behalf of indigenous people, in the teeth of opposition from the Oil industry. 

Once word got round, it was to put everybody else off the Compliance machine for good: the thing was obviously unreliable. 

After that it was time for Reid to head for York. He got to the house mid-morning: as usual the front door was unlocked. He went right through to the kitchen: there was Verity, sitting at the table, staring into space. Her coffee had gone cold. 
She looked up when she heard him. 

“John...John Reid...” her voice was flat and toneless. 

Her expression was completely blank. And she had used the name from his old workplace. That expression: he remembered it from some of the less-fortunate among the detainees. Reminded of this, he lost Empathy: couldn’t read her mind, couldn’t know what she was feeling. 

He got out the small silver-coloured card, folded it and stood it upright on the table facing her.  Explained what it was, in just a few matter-of-fact words. 
“Hello Verity. Glad you made it back” 


“Is Sacha around?” 

Reid sat down at the table next to her 


Reid was nonplussed 

“They did...I had...” 


“ Lefortovo...” 

“Did what, Verity?” 

“I...didn’t comply. Just like you said” 

“Att’er girl. Well done” 

“Sacha...his accent. It reminds me I have to ask him...not to speak! And, he forgets. And it reminds me of...” the sentence tailed off into nothing. 

“Of”, prompted Reid. He knew what was coming 

Reid prompted her gently away from the subject of her experiences at Lefortovo. 

“How did that happen, Verity?” 

“They searched me, at the airport. Found...what I was going to the Minister. They...didn’t want me to...say those things. Didn’t want...Distant Early take your the Minister. Misunderstood. Message about using Enhanced crops. Drought-resistant...blight-resistant...avoid famine. So they took me away” 

Reid nodded as if to say, go on... 

“Tried to talk me out of it.  Change my Lefortovo” 

go on... 

“Took the basement...tried...something else on me...I...didn’t comply” 

“Did they stop you from sleeping?” 

“It-was, darker*...” 

“Make you stand, for_” 

“It-was, darker...” 


Verity shivered 

“It-was, darker...” 

“Southern cross?? Cling-film?” 

“It-was, darker...” 

Reid looked at Verity’s ankles: they were bandaged up. But her hands seemed intact. She let him push up her sleeves and look at her wrists and arms: not a mark... 

“Not, old-school?” 

“No. My squall...fall...I wanted to go...over the edge. Would have. Ayn Rand came and...stopped me! I hard. But, it saved my life. And...then they found my head! You know, she hated Russia. After that they...said...all’s fair. Sent in the Mindstormer to hunt her down.  In my Mind Palace. She put up a fight. They destroyed...vsyoh!

“And...and I have no idea, now, what I said to the Minister. They...put something there. In my Mind Palace. For me to say. I can’t remember it now...” 

“Can you try? Try and remember? What you said?” 

Verity shook her head, then gripped it with both hands and collapsed, sobbing and shaking, on the table, knocking the little silver card to the floor, where it stopped recording. 

“You’re the expert. I have to know...” 

She could hardly get the words out 

“How, convincing I am!!” 


“Matthew...Matthew Read! Did I manage to fool you?” 

“Sweet Jesus Verity, you shouldn’t do that to people!” 

The life returned to her voice, to her eyes. 

“Soft Southern git”, she grinned, “I’m sorry if you worried about me, in Nevada. But, we thought it through. In Russia. We had to come up with a story, a chain of events, that would account for everything. And of course there was no safe way of letting you in on it, until you got here. Sorry!” 

Verity continued: 

“I really did spend some time in the Interrogation wing at Lefortovo.  The Minister got me taken there, for protective custody. And to fool the opposition. Genius or what?  Then, they had to be sure I was on their side. And I had no idea who I was dealing with. It took them a whole day to convince me to trust them: I must be really thick. But we got there in the end” 

Verity didn’t mention the Professor or his work. 

“Then the boss there, Olga, offered to interpret for me at the Minister’s office: I understand just about enough to be pretty sure she did it properly. I recounted Desirée’s findings, and that terrible email” 

Verity left out being mistaken for the female Grim Reaper, and the sudden appearance of Mills, presumably sent by the Cousins, in the Minister’s office. She didn’t want the Minister to come across as irrational in her account, and didn’t want to let on what the two of them shared, as spotted and so deftly used by Olga: a not entirely irrational dread of famine. 

“Olga didn’t tell me what exactly the place was, where I was staying. Not until after I had seen the Minister. It was a shock!  The look on my face, she said, was what gave her the idea, this idea of saying they’d wrecked me somehow. Because the place has a certain reputation. May as well use it” 

“Anyway, the Minister was delighted with the information I had brought her: she’s now got a load of top-class ammunition against Enhanced crops. I’ve since heard that the President has taken it on board, and come round! The T.W.A.T. and the T.W.I.T. are dead in the water, at least if anyone wants Russia to sign up” 

“Wow! That’s great! Score one for self-reliance!” 

“Of course, I can’t be seen anywhere near Sanmonto again, at least for a few months while I, er, ‘recuperate’ ”, she grinned. “I’ve a reputation for having a strong mind: it should be believable, that I get better. I recovered from PTSD, didn’t I, with your help? But I think I shall hand in my notice: it was difficult, working there. I missed Sacha, the rain, everything really. I bet the allotment’s a right mess” 

“I’m handing in my papers, too, when I get back”, said Reid. “Before they get on to what I’ve been doing with that machine... 

“And I get the impression that it’s not the first time Olga and her gang have pulled off a stunt like that. They taught you well: you really were acting like a classic mind trauma victim. Useful skill. Never know when you might need it again”  

Verity didn’t mention the final thing Olga had told her, just before saying goodbye at the airport. She didn’t want to risk reminding Reid of his former profession again. 

She had asked how Olga had learned English so well, and without an Evening Lands accent. 

“Oh, my father was sent to work in England for a year: Industrial Liaison. When I was very young. Too young for school in Russia. But, you start at just four years old, don’t you, in your country? So I went off to school, with not a word of English” 

“How did you manage? And, whereabouts in the country were you?” 

“Leeds. The teacher was very patient, and she had this way of getting the other pupils to help me. The school was in the poor part of the city. St Clement’s_” 

Verity had thought Olga was making it up. 

Until she gave, in exact detail, an account of one day there: a midwinter day, with wet snow and a dark morning. Detail all the way down to the distribution of free milk, the decor in the classroom and the place where the roof leaked. It was the day the English teacher had had to bring her daughter in to school, and sit her at the back of the room, because the childminder had the ‘flu. 

A day, and a classroom, that Verity still remembered vividly because, at only three years old, she had never been to a school before. She could hardly talk: she learned late. Only listened. Listened, and learned. 

Her mum had read to the class. It was an old story, about the North wind and the sun

It had a moral. 

* Verity uses some words from the language of her and the Minister's new allies: she has found that it seems to give her strength. 

*******************  The End  **************************

The story takes as its inspiration some findings from this paper

In particular:

"(Cauliflower Mosaic Virus) can recombine with insect viruses and (be) propagated in insect cells (D. Zuidema et al. J. Gen. Vir. 71: 312, 1990). Thus it is likely that as large numbers of humans consume CaMV modified tomatos recombination between CaMV and hepatitis B viruses will take place creating a supervirus propagated in plants, insects and humans.