Friday, May 06, 2005

Theories of Time Travel

As any reader or viewer of science fiction can tell you, time travel can get pretty messy. But assuming you could figure out a way to time travel, what would it say about the universe and how would it work?

Theory #1: It wouldn’t. No, I don’t mean that time travel is impossible (because, for the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming it is). What I mean is, the existence of time travel is inherently unstable. Because so many paradoxes can be generated by the existence of time travel (what with people going around and killing their grandfathers as children and all), the only stable universe would be one in which time travel never occurred. Of course, time travel would still be going on in unstable timelines. This might cause time travelers from the unstable timelines to pile up in the stable timelines, of which there would be several if certain theories of quantum physics hold. However, because there are an infinite number of probable outcomes, some of which would include time travel, would the stable timelines eventually fill with time travelers from other timelines? Assuming that the time traveler’s presence in a time line creates an alternate time line which is still stable, it should still be possible for other time travelers to end up in that time line, so long as their presence does not result in more attempts at time travel. So, theoretically, a time line would exist somewhere in which every person who ever traveled back in time and prevented time travel from ever occuring all live in the same timeline.

Theory #2: Everything is predestined. For those of us who like our free will, this is a scary one to ponder. The theory goes that if you traveled back in time, nothing you do will change the timeline because you were always meant to travel back in time. Futurama did a rather crude rendition of this theory when it was revealed that Fry was his own grandfather (after he got the man he thought was his true grandfather killed). Mobius strip, anyone? Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer does a more sophisticated job of demonstrating this theory. When the main character travels through time, events in the future (the year 2000) make perfect sense once the main character goes back to the present (1970ish) and puts events in motion that will obviously lead to the future he had already seen.

Theory #3: One timeline, changes have gradual ripple effect.

This theory suggests that there is still only one timeline, but it can be changed after history has already been written. If you go back in time and change something, the timeline gradually changes accordingly. Any story that has things like “timequakes” fits into this theory. It would kind of imply a second time dimension, one in which the time we perceive changes over time.

Maybe I'll ask the people at the time traveler's convention which theory is best.

Price War Halted

Driving prices up? That's okay. Driving them down? That's a no-no.

Maryland consumers: Hey, cheap gas! Alright!
Maryland: No, no. You can't do that. Raise the price. Now.
Maryland consumers: $%^@

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Here is your history lesson for the day. It's French bashing fun!

Evolution: The Battle Continues

Kansas is in the middle of an "evolution in schools" debate again. This time, it's not blatant creationism that people are trying to have taught side by side with evolution in science classrooms. It's something called "intelligent design", called "creationism light" by opponents. The evolution vs creation debate is endless (and, to me, pointless, because I think God created a beatifully complex universe in which life could and did evolve, but apparently that's just me. I'd elaborate, but I'm going to delve into religion enough today, which, like talking about politics, can cause third degree burns). Teachers and scientists will not be happy if religion is brought into the science classroom, especially if it's dressed up as science. People who believe in God and think evolution disproves God's existence and therefore can't be true will not be happy until evolution is brought down. So I have a suggestion.

Teach intelligent design - the theory that hyperintelligent transdimensional beings came to this planet millions of years ago and planted the seeds for life, returning every once and a while to see how things were going and tweak them to their liking. Scientists should be utterly frustrated at the lack of scientific basis for this and the creationists should be sufficiently horrified at the theory's implications on the existence of God. Both sides will be equally unhappy and thus, from a system engineering perspective (as I learned at work), this solution must be the right one.

Did I offend everyone? My work here is done.

Government Spoilers

You mean you can still read the words? That'll learn yah to use spoiler tags in publicly released documents. Thanks to Walt for the link.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

County Pennies

Numismatist humor on the Onion. The good news is, Richmond won't be left out just because it's an independent city. The bad news, the penny won't be released until 2276. By then, the city coucil will have torn down and rebuilt the city at least 3 times, so they'll have plenty of visions of the city to chose from. But they should probably stay away from this picture since, if you don't know who that is or what it's intended to show, it looks kind of like he's saying "Get back! Get back, foul children!"

Quote of the Day - May 4, 2005

It seems to me that there is such a thing as excessive patience.

- a poster refering to my Compaq rant

Monday, May 02, 2005

Evolution of Spec-Fi Television Story-Telling

Television itself has evolved over the years, from variety shows and sitcoms about nuclear families to reality shows and complex, high-intensity dramas. But spec-fi (which includes science fiction, fantasy, and shows that aren’t necessarily either of those but still explore “what-if” scenarios) television in particular has undergone an interesting transformation in the way it tells its stories.

Let’s look back to early television. In 1959, Rod Serling introduced the world to The Twilight Zone. Half hour (and, later, hour-long) shows took the viewer into a different speculative story every week. There were no regular characters and each episode stood on it’s own, but it showed that thought-provoking television was not only possible but also potentially very popular.

In the late sixties, science fiction grew as genre, but one series went beyond just taking place in space. Star Trek was billed as “Wagon Train in space” – a group of explorers encountering both external and internal conflicts. With a cast of regular characters and plenty of social commentary, Star Trek paved the way for all science television to follow.

Fast forward a bit to the ‘90’s. Star Trek: The Next Generation started to experiment with multi-part episodes and small story arcs in addition to their usual single-episode story lines. Cliff-hangers left viewers curious as to what would happen next, increasing the chances that they would tune in again. Then, two important shows came along in 1993. First, Bablyon 5’s pilot episode aired in early 1993. Bablyon 5 had several unique elements, not the least of which was the 5-year story arc. It was incredibly ambitious, and despite a rotating cast and occasional uncertainty about renewal, it worked surprisingly well. Part of the success lay in the fact that each season was also an arc, several smaller arcs occurred within each season, and each character had their own personal arcs. The show created a rich universe with truly alien cultures and even presented humans as being less than squeaky clean (I saw B5 as a more realistic future, compared to Star Trek’s ideal future in which humans miraculously get along).

Meanwhile, back on Earth, X-Files premiered in the fall of 1993. It started out as Star Trek did, with stand-alone episodes. And even though they, too, eventually discovered the beauty of the arc, X-Files major contribution to spec-fi was the main-streaming of speculative fiction. Up to this point, spec-fi was mainly found in syndication. If it was on a network, it was on Friday nights (if it had a solid timeslot at all – can you say Quantum Leap?), where it could easily be preempted by sports. X-Files, too, got that Friday night slot (though not the 8:00 death slot. At least four shows – all spec-fi - perished there during X-Files’ tenure). But it not only survived, it thrived. It appealed to a much broader audience then spec-fi usually did. There was just enough speculation to interest the geeks, but the characters were relatable enough to attract the previously non-geeky.

1997. Enter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know, what a stupid name for a television show. It took a Buffy marathon to get my dad past the title. But I think Buffy is the first full realization of modern spec-fi television. It wasn’t quite as ambitious as Babylon 5, but each season was a self-contained story-arc. At the beginning of the season, you were generally introduced to the villain(s) of the season (whether the main characters were aware of their existence or not). The threat would build in the background, occasionally boiling up to affect Buffy and her allies. Several smaller arcs would occur within the season. There were occasional stand-alones, but they tended to be the exception rather than the rule. It also had characters that average people could relate to like X-Files. In the end, slaying vampires and demons was way easier than dealing with the day-to-day of homework, friends, family, love, and death – true, irreversible human death.

Now we have shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica that follow this story-telling style. Here’s hoping the trend continues.

Home Control System

More childhood reminiscing. The house I grew up in was controlled by a computer. A Model 100, to be precise. My father programmed it to receive commands from little momentary switches placed strategically throughout the house. Those commands would then send signals to the X-10 devices that most lights and the family room TV were plugged into. The commands went something like this: Three clicks would turn off everything downstairs (good for when you’re about to leave and don’t want to hunt down all the lights that have been left on). Three clicks, pause, three clicks turned on the family room TV (this was the Heathkit TV my father built, which had no remote – well, there was the converted calculator, but that just changed the channel). Three clicks, pause, one click turned on the light by the sofa. I think 3-2 turned on the overhead light.

All that was just in the family room. Each bedroom had control panels (store bought, though, not homemade). I remember figuring out how to turn the lights in my sister’s room on and off from the safety of my own room. I also remember wondering why some light switches were square buttons while others were, well, switches.

I miss being able to turn off my lights from bed. How primitive! When will the world catch up with my childhood?