By Frances Buontempo

Overload, 28(159):2-3, October 2020

Do we know what reality is? Frances Buontempo is no longer sure and now wonders if she’s a fictional character.

Since becoming Overload editor, I have failed to write an editorial. In my defence, I have managed to fill the first two pages with musings, somewhat like a meta- or virtual editorial. Having attended a live stream of various noisy bands instead of making our annual pilgrimage to a metal festival in a field in England during August, I have again failed to find time to write an editorial. The online festival was tremendous; I discovered a couple of new bands and interacted with others across the world on social media while they played. Nonetheless, this is not the same as being in a circle pit or somewhere near the front bouncing off other audience members. Live music is a real visceral experience that is impossible to capture virtually. I tried to imagine a haptic feedback mosh-pit suit, but didn’t get very far. I’ll need to read some decent SciFi to plug the gaps in my imagination. Fictional accounts of possibilities frequently pave the way for changes in technology, or more broadly society in general. Fictional, or virtual, imaginings cause a shift in the fabric of reality. Star Trek has arguably brought about mobile phones, tablets and automatic doors. I’m hanging on for the replicators and transporters, as I have said many times before. I am given to believe that the film Predator [IMDb-1] caused someone in the military to ask if the mimetic camouflage suit were possible in reality, securing funding to research this. ‘Now the nightmare vision of an invisible murderer from space could come true on Earth, thanks to University of Bristol scientists.’ [Waugh15]. Cheerful stuff.

Over time, many people have bashed ‘virtual’ interactions. I have been asked, “Have you actually talked to them?” when I say I’ve been discussing a technical issue. Some people can’t understand how to communicate by writing only, and believe a ‘proper’ conversation is always better. This general statement misses many nuances, and the best way to communicate almost always depends. For example, a colleague did ‘phone’ me, or make a Slack call rather, to talk me through running a script. As with many step-up scripts, it asked probing question, like ‘Wipe all this out and replace it? [y/N]’. The technical among you will realise pressing enter will select the upper case option ‘N’, which is a shorthand for ‘No’. As you can imagine, the actual words on the call went like:

Fran: No?
Him: Yes.
Fran: What? Yes.
Him: No, No.
Fran: Tell you what, I’ll just accept the defaults and call you back.

Whoever insists that phone calls are better than typing or scripts inhabits a different reality to a large amount of my life. Did I tell you about the guy who tried to read a barcode down the phone to a customer once? “Thick, thick, thin…” I kid you not. Talking to people is not always the best way to communicate. Furthermore, I wonder if a Slack call is even a real telephone call?

A telephone is a sound at a distance. Anything starting ‘tele’ captures the idea of something happening at a distance, so I guess a Google Hangout, Zoom, or Slack call are like phone calls, but give the optional extra of having your web-cams on so you can see each other. This, of course, can put stress on the bandwidth, since you are uploading and downloading pictures and sounds, rather than just listening to each other. Very distracting. I acknowledge some people like to see each other and wave. Having a virtual beer with the camera on is great. You can discuss what you are drinking. Or, for the alcohol-free, sharing a remote cup of tea and cake means you can show off the cake and discuss recipes. All good. Something that works well for one situation may not work well across the board. As all consultants will tell you, there is no One True Way to approach things. It always depends.

Talking over a phone or video call is no less talking than a face to face conversation. Certainly, there are differences. You don’t have to spend time and money travelling to be in the same place. You can’t shake hands or hug remotely. You can still talk, and listen. Sharing barcodes or running a script might be better done without talking, as discussed. Writing things down can force you to be precise and unambiguous with language. It also provides a paper trail, which is useful in a variety of circumstances. It may not count as a real conversation, but who cares or even knows what’s real. Life is complex.

Code can get complex too. Object oriented programming using the idea of dynamically dispatched functions, flagged up as virtual to vary behaviour at runtime. In The Design and Evolution of C++ [Stroustrup94, p73], Stroustrup explains functions marked as virtual use “the Simula and C++ term for ‘may be redefined later in a class derived from this one’”. This avoids a huge switch statement choosing what to do at run time for a specific ‘type’, perhaps indicated with a flag. Any new types need to be added to the switch statement, increasing compile times and potentially introducing bugs. Stroustrup explains he adopted the Simula inheritance mechanism to avoid these problems. Simula hails from the 1960s, and the inheritance model along with subclasses may have been introduced in Simula67 [Wikipedia]. Be aware that subclassing, having a sub and super class, or base and derived as Stroustrup re-dubbed them, is different to virtual functions. [op cit, p 49] “Even without virtual functions, derived classes in C with Classes were useful for building new data structures out of old ones.” I half wonder why we use the virtual and override keywords. The base class can have an implementation, so abstract would be the wrong word. We indicate that with = 0 {}; well, the curly braces are only needed if we want to implement the abstract function. Without the braces, we have a pure virtual function, which is non-functional and will crash if it’s ever called. Don’t tell non-tech people. Their heads will explode.

Now, virtual functions are one thing, but people who know other OO languages often laugh at C++’s multiple inheritance model, and the use of a virtual base class. Language bashing often springs from not fully understanding a different paradigm. Rein yourself in if you notice you’re doing this. Nonetheless, some ways of coding are less than ideal. Structured programming offered a grand improvement over jumping around between various lines of code. Though it is possible to warp your head into code laced with goto statements, I suspect most programmers would say it is OK to bash this way of coding. Dijkstra’s famous ‘Go to considered harmful’ paper [Dijkstra68] is probably legendary by now, and inspires many similar talk titles. One thing we do all seem to agree on.

The pandemic has forced many things into cyberspace that used to be face to face. People are discussing the pros and cons of virtual meetups and conferences. Having not spoken at one, I can appreciate it must be odd to not have the visual or auditory feedback of attendees. People will type questions or share great quotes on social media, but it must be impossible to follow what’s happening while talking into a laptop and wondering if anyone can even see or hear you. Alex Chan recently offered some advice for presenters:

Virtual presenters should ALWAYS wear high-contrast lipstick. I’m sick of seeing presenters whose lips are barely distinguishable from their face.

  1. It makes you look even more fabulous than usual.
  2. The extra contrast makes it easier for anybody who relies on lip-reading. [Chan20]

This kicked off a small discussion about the history of television, or even older, black and white films. Make-up was, and still is, used to great visual effect, and also to avoid distractions like shiny skin and so on. Sound engineering is also a full on-technical discipline, to adapt and change the real sound, making it clearer, better, or more dramatic. Even a live stage performance, for example at a real metal festival, has lighting to emphasise cool stuff, often flames, loud noises, costumes and a sound desk for reasons. Good reasons. A ‘real’ live performance, would be unplugged, no make-up, no lighting. You could argue it shouldn’t involve any kind of ‘man-made’ instrument. If you don’t agree, consider for a moment the source of the word virtual. It ties in with the idea of possessing certain virtues. OK, that’s not so helpful. What is a virtue? Somewhere between potency or effectiveness, and manliness [Etymology-1]. If you follow the latter meaning, not only do you get the idea of ‘man-made’, but you get ‘vir’ or ‘wiro’ or even ‘were’ as a root word [Etymology-2]. A werewolf is a virtual or man wolf. I’m happy to leave the ‘man’ aside as perhaps meaning ‘human’ in this case.

Where does this leave us? Virtual reality is created by humans, but therefore has virtue. Virtual reality is no less real than reality itself. It comes in many flavours, for example sometimes we talk of augmented reality instead. Sometimes virtual and real aren’t opposite. If something in tech is described as real-time, that distinguishes it from a lag or polled snapshot, rather than virtual time, whatsoever that might be. Of course, time and space are relative, so talking of ‘real’ time, as though there is One True Time that we can all agree on, reveals a lack of understanding of Relativity. Furthermore, many real-time operating systems or loggers are more ‘near-real-time’ than actual real time. This starts to beg the question, what is real anyway? We use the word carelessly, and try ideas like ‘Actually existing, things… genuine’. As opposed to fake? I am told, ‘The meaning ‘genuine’ is recorded from 1550s; the sense of ‘unaffected, no-nonsense’ is from 1847.’ [Etymology-3] I could pull further on the history of each of these words, but copying from dictionaries is even further from an editorial than my usual excuses.

Perhaps we should consider fakes for a bit. I recently listened to a Radio 4 programme, called ‘Re-enactment radio’ [BBC]. Antonia Quirke and guests discuss whether scenes in movies are plausible or even possible. This time they discussed fight scenes and computers in films. Unrealistic super-hero style fight scenes got a bashing. Most unfair, to my mind. I like tightly choreographed unrealistic fight scenes. If I want to see realistic fight scenes I could go into town on a Friday night and watch the results of too much alcohol, well, could have done were it not for the virus. Swordfish [IMDb-2], some kind of covert counter-terrorist hacking story I have never seen, was then dismantled. The geeky expert on the radio called out implausible hacking into a government system, using bad C code that does not compile, and flashing ‘Access Denied’ messages culminating in finally managing to hack into a directory and list the contents, which included a customer satisfaction survey. Not what you’d expect to find on a government IT system. Do any of you pause a film when you see code in the background and try to figure out what language it is and if it’s correct? If not, never watch a film with me.

It’s easier to spot fakes when you are knowledgeable on a subject. However, this isn’t fool-proof. Perhaps this begs an even more important question. Are you sure you are real, or anything is real? Are you sure you aren’t a computer program, living in cyberspace? Are you living in the Matrix? You can’t prove anything, all you can do is wonder and consider. You can try to be genuine, or virtuous. Don’t bash virtual goings on, but do consider if you have an appropriate lip-stick for you next ‘live’ gig. Keep it real, as they used to say.


[BBC] Re-enactment Radio:

[Chan20] Alex Chan, tweeted 4 September 2020,

[Dijkstra68] Dijkstra, Edsger W. (March 1968). ‘Letters to the editor: Go to statement considered harmful’ Communications of the ACM. 11 (3): 147–148

[Etymology-1] Virtual:

[Etymology-2] Virtue:

[Etymology-3] Real:

[IMDb-1] Predator (1987)

[IMDb-2] Swordfish (2001)

[Stroustrup94] Bjarne Stroustrup (1994) The Design and Evolution of C++ published by Addison Wesley

[Waugh15] Rob Waugh (2015) ‘Predator’ becomes reality as scientists unveil a real camouflage cloak, published in

[Wikipedia] Simula:

Frances Buontempo has a BA in Maths + Philosophy, an MSc in Pure Maths and a PhD technically in Chemical Engineering, but mainly programming and learning about AI and data mining. She has been a programmer since the 90s, and learnt to program by reading the manual for her Dad’s BBC model B machine.

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