Ex Bibliotheca

The life and times of Zack Weinberg.

Tuesday, 19 February 2002

# 8:30 PM

It's been raining off and on for the past week; today it seems to have settled down to rain in earnest. I like a good gentle rainy day. The soft gray light makes everything seem friendlier, somehow. The mist brings the horizon closer. Things nearer than the mist somehow seem sharper, probably by contrast. Noises are muffled.

I walked through Sproul Plaza on the way back from class and saw that someone had decided to dump bubble bath liquid in the fountain for a joke. It wasn't real impressive, though.

today's dose of philosophizing

It occurred to me earlier today that the forms and procedures of a criminal trial have interesting resemblances to magical ritual. Two things in particular come to mind: the goal being to determine an absolute Truth (who is guilty of a crime) by inquiring of witnesses, and the unusual powers given to the judge as representative of the state. (Under normal circumstances, ordering that someone be locked up for the rest of their life is itself a criminal act.)

This is not surprising when you consider that most modern criminal procedure is based on protocols developed in solidly religious—mostly solidly Christian—cultures and times. Most religions do include the concept of absolute truth, and the spectrum from religion to magic is well understood in anthropology.

With my speculative-fiction hat on, there are two ways one could run with this observation. One, let's call it the "Ken MacLeod direction", would be to explore the nature of a legal system that didn't have any basis in magic or religion. Instead, it might take an approach similar to scientific method, with experiments done to probe the scene of a crime for what happened. More emphasis would be placed on preventing crime than punishing it. Punishments would focus on compensating the victim, probably with money (weregild, anyone?)

The other possibility, the "Jo Walton direction", would be to explore a legal system overtly and explicitly based on magic principles. Here, you'd investigate a crime with rituals intended to extract truth from suspects and witnesses, and punishments might have a direct effect on the state of the criminal's soul.

# 3 AM

The power went out. When I turned the breaker back on, it buzzed at me and flipped off again. Wasted some time trying to figure out where the load was. It turns out that the two master breakers control the front and back halves of the building, not the top and bottom floors like I'd thought, so I bothered the wrong person. Then I gave up and turned the power back on a second time; this time it seems to be staying on (knock wood).

We had a rash of this last month, which I'd figured was due to everyone running electric heaters, but now it's warmer and people aren't doing that. Maybe something else is wrong.

# 2:30 AM

So I'm walking down the street and I see that it is street-sweeping day. Of course not everyone has moved their cars out of the way of the sweeping truck, so the guy driving has had to avoid them and miss long chunks of curb. All these people will come back to find they've been slapped with tickets. This is a lose any way you slice it. People have trouble remembering which day of the month the sweeping happens, they resent paying the tickets, and the streets aren't even clean.

How would your friendly local mad scientist solve this problem? Perhaps with a sweeping truck that could move cars that were in its way. Here are three designs:

  1. The most obvious, and perhaps the most satisfying, is to add a giant robot arm to the side of the sweeper. When a car is in the way, the driver uses the arm to pick it up and hold it in the air while sweeping where it was. Unfortunately, the truck will need to pick up the next car while it's still where the previous car was, so it needs more than just one arm, and needs to be able to hand cars from one arm to another without putting them down. This is probably impractical.
  2. We could use a conveyor belt instead of an arm. The sweeping truck would be shaped like one of those wedge robots from Robot Wars, and cars would be carried up and over its top while it sweeps underneath. The trouble with this design is it forces us to reshape the entire truck, and the new shape isn't very practical for the truck's primary purpose (sweeping streets). Also, the cars on the conveyor would block the driver's vision.
  3. But why does the whole truck have to fit into the parking lane? We could put the sprayers, brushes, and vacuum on a robot arm. This arm could be very simple; all it needs to do is extend to the side of the truck. Now we can fit a second arm to pick up cars in the way of the brushes; since the whole truck isn't going into the parking lane, it doesn't need the range of movement that the arm in the first design did, nor do we need to pick up multiple cars. Perfect!