Sunday, May 21, 2017

Indistinguishable from Magic

Harry Potter is a story about friendship, courage, and doing the right thing no matter what. But Harry Potter is, of course, also about magic: the flying brooms, the wands, the magical creatures, the talking pictures and moving staircases.

Fans of the Harry Potter universe eagerly await their Hogwarts acceptances, not for plot, but for the impossibilities offered by magic.

But what if I told you that the magic from Harry Potter exists today in the muggle world?

Well, you wouldn't believe me of course, and that is why I must offer evidence. Here are seven magical devices from Harry Potter that exist, or soon will exist, in the real world:

  • The Flying Broom/ Arthur's Flying Car/ Sirius's Flying Motorcycle
I am speaking, of course, of the drones and flying cars made possible by science today. Kittyhawk offers the potential for personal flight, no different from a flying broom, except in that you cannot also use it for cleaning up a mess. The Hover-Bike, although not quite as cool as Sirius's actual flying motorcycle, gets the job done.

Better still, we actually have self-driving cars, which, in my opinion, is more magical than merely cars that fly. After all, muggles conquered flight all the way back in 1903.

  • Firecalls/ Floo network
While we haven't yet figured out how to use a fireplace to teleport - and really, no one has fireplaces where I come from, so this would be a rather useless invention for me - we have far better solutions for long-distance communication than sticking your head in the fireplace. We have Skype and Facetime and numerous other options that let us communicate with others over long distances via video, without the unpleasant side-effect of nausea.

  • Libraries / Information
Do you realize that most of book 1 was spent doing a manual Google search through a library to find out who Nicholas Flamer was? That Hermione spent much of book 2 figuring out that the monster was a basilisk? That book 4 was spent searching for ways to defeat dragons and breathe underwater?

Do you realize that a muggle would have spent less than 0.54 seconds figuring most of this out? In fact, success in the wizarding world seems to be determined largely by how well you memorize information: spells, potions, clever ways to treat or defeat a magical creature. Hermione could have been replaced by a Mac and WiFi.

  • Invisibility cloak
Okay, so maybe we're not quite there yet. But scientists are working on it. They plan on using materials that bend light, thereby giving the illusion of invisibility, which, come to think of it, actually sounds closer to the science described in Wells's The Invisible Man. Pretty cool.

  • Molly's Magical Clock
Do you remember the ingenious clock with 9 hands that Molly used to keep tabs on her family's whereabouts? Knowing where your child is at all times and whether he/she is in danger was a dream of concerned mothers everywhere.  My own mother would pay a handsome sum for such a device.

And like teenagers everywhere, I sure was glad this device existed solely in the magical realm. Not anymore. We now have apps that let us locate our family members using GPS. Thankfully, it is opt-in.

  • Magic Spells / Wand
Now I should warn you, my inner computer geek is about to shine through. So, what is so magical about a magic spell? Well, you can change things in the real world by the power of your words alone.

This is also something we computer programmers do. After all, what is code but a magic spell converted by a compiler into binary commands which a computer follows. With a mere spell, you can control a robot, a self-driving car, a video game or a phone.

What then is a wand? Well, it's a combined speech to text converter/compiler of course! Which makes me, a compiler engineer, essentially a wandmaker, like Ollivander :)

  • The Sorting Hat/ Legilimency
Brain computer interface technology, such as neuralink, could give us insight into a person's mind. I must confess, I did not realize this myself, and therefore, let me redirect you to an interesting article that will wrinkle your brain.

Honorable mentions:

  • Howlers / Letters
Honestly, the magical world has been left behind when it comes to communication. Think about it. They still use letters! Delivered by birds! Compare that to how long it takes to send an email. Or an instant message. Oh, and a howler is just an angry voice mail of course.

  • Quick-quotes quill
A less accurate speech to text converter. And I'm sure we will someday be able to generate sensationalist headlines using machine learning.

  • Skele-Gro

  • Impervius charm
Hermione used this to help make Harry's glasses waterproof. Muggles use hydrophobic glass coating.

  • Talking paintings
  • Moving images
Aka GIFs.

  • Gillyweed / Bubble-head charm
Diving gear.


I hope you have been convinced now of the Arthur C Clarke quote:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Turns out, the magical realm really is hiding in plain sight. Just takes a little imagination to realize it.

"Impossible" magical devices that we want next:

  1. Teleportation
  2. Transfiguration
  3. Things that are bigger on the inside
  4. Time travel
  5. Dragons

Friday, May 05, 2017

Destiny and Karma

Do you believe in destiny?

That everything is fated, and all that happens is just as it is meant to be. That we are simply actors playing out a script, or self-aware sacks of flesh along for the roller coaster ride that is life?

I think it takes an enormous level of acceptance of life and its horrors to believe that all that happens, happens for the best. To give up control and submit to fate. Or maybe it is fear that drives this belief: the fear of uncertainty.

Because when we were children, our days and our futures were planned out for us. A ten year old knows that he'll be in sixth grade next year, and that he will get that bicycle for his birthday. He knows that he will start swimming lessons this summer and that his parents will take him to his grandparents for the holidays. There are no uncertainties, no decisions to be made. Life is so easy.

Growing up is a disillusioning process of discovering that no one really knows what is going to happen tomorrow. In my opinion, giving into destiny is a reversion to the childhood acceptance of a faceless parent-figure who knows what's best for you and will take care of everything.

At the other end is the belief in Karma: what goes around comes around and bites you. I think it takes a great deal of optimism to think that way. That life is just and fair and that you deserve all the good and all the bad that happens to you. Or maybe it is fear once again: the fear of a lack of control.

Because belief in karma gives you complete control: if you get sick it is your fault; if you get rich, you worked hard and deserved it; if you get injured in an accident, you must have done something to deserve that too.

It's a simplistic view centered on oneself that takes away agency from other creatures and the impact that chance events, and your environment, have on you. I wonder how you can have empathy for someone else if you believe in karma. After all, if they don't have it as good as you, it's only because you deserve it more.

I myself have been accused of this belief in karma. I don't necessarily think that if I do the right thing, that the world will pay me back. I just think that society is more than the sum of its individual elements. That not only does your environment impact you, but that you can influence it back. That you aren't a slave to fate but one of its makers.

As adults, we all find a way to cope with reality. Some with destiny (acceptance), and some with karma (control). And then there are those who choose neither, but instead try and analyze and root cause everything to figure out why things are not the way they should be. They are the ones who have no time to discuss philosophy. They are the ones who change the world.