Absorbing The World

We’re naturally pretty good as a species as being aware of what’s around us at any given point in time. We’ve also invented systems that allow us to share what we interact with to others who aren’t sharing the same moments of time in the same place.

We call this, the news.

This might sound wrong, but once I had a critical mass of friends on Facebook I stopped watching the news. Those friends filtered the things I wanted to learn about in life. Who was having a rough day. What someone was having for dinner. Who was getting married. Those things were the best and most important news. Someone in a government hall thousands of miles away should always be less important than your friends.

Then the algorithm or interface changed. I no longer saw the news I cared about. I couldn’t set most recent as my default. So I turned it off and looked for other positive news influences in my life.

I came across Reason.com which is the most fair evaluation of politics I’ve ever come across. They write from a perspective that they’re not shy about and the parts of the news they cover are interesting.

I also like tech, so I read Arstechnica about once a week. Today I noticed an article about a man who changed his license plate to the word null.

When he did that he triggered something in the software. You see an empty value in certain systems is known as a null value.

So, let’s say someone got a parking ticket, but the license plate wasn’t recorded when the ticket got entered into the system. It would have a null value. The ticket would be assigned to the license plate with the null value.

Eventually what happened is the guy with the null plate got a ticket. The system associated all null value tickets with his license plate, address, and him. So he ended up getting charged with all the parking tickets that didn’t have plates. $12,000+ worth!

We brought up the article at lunch today among friends and they were surprised to see me so excited about a news article. So I had to explain my excitement. I did so by showing how more parts of our society are expressed in this story than what appears on the surface.

Firstly, we have the concept of parking tickets? Why do we have those? Why are they tracked at the state level? Great questions to be sure.

More questions: Why did this person want to do this? How much knowledge in computer systems did he need to have before he thought of this idea? Did he think this would be an outcome or something else? What was his inspiration?

Still more questions: What is the process for getting this resolved? What type of database was this? Who is responsible for the system running? Who built the system? What does this say about how we choose to interact with machines?

The rest of the news probably covered something a politician said. This though reveals a lot of wonderful questions about our society. I doubt the politician’s word were that insightful.