The Alternative Calendar’s Tale

My longstanding practice is to put things on my work calendar as soon as I plan them, even if they are not going to happen for months.  It’s not unusual for me to have deadlines and appointments on my calendar a year in advance.  In my experience, I’m just less likely to create a scheduling conflict or double-book myself if I keep my  calendar current.

0frjo3qnmby6xfgkoNormally, there’s nothing strange about this.  The planned dates and deadlines arrive, the appointments and conferences and meetings happen, and the calendar pages turn and fade into the past.

Of course, in 2020 nothing is normal.  In 2020, all of the appointments and meetings and trips that were planned were cancelled — but they have remained on the calendar because there’s no point in going through the effort needed to delete them.  As a result, each week I get notices of what I was supposed to have been doing if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t thrown us all a gigantic curve ball.  I’ve gotten reminders of haircuts missed, dinners that didn’t happen, performances that never occurred, and business and personal trips to places like Austin and Chicago that simply vanished on the wings of the wind.

Looking at those calendar entries that I made long ago has been a very weird experience.  It’s like unexpectedly catching sidelong glances of yourself in a mirror, where your reflection is reversed, or getting a glimpse of my life in one of those parallel universes that have been fodder for so many Star Trek episodes and sci fi novels, movies, and TV shows.  And, because all of these things were actually planned, they are far more plausible than the scenarios where the Nazis won World War II or an evil empire controls the galaxy.  If anything, the reverse is true:  Alternative Bob’s life seems a lot more plausible than one where the United States shut down for months due to a virus.  In fact, the sudden emergence of a virus causing the world to close its doors seems like a pretty contrived plot device.

I’ve been following his exploits with some interest, and I can tell you that, so far, Alternative Bob has had a heck of a 2020.

In Search Of Solid Science Fiction

Lately I’ve been consciously trying to do more leisure reading.  Unfortunately, I’d gotten out of the habit, because when you spend your work day reading it’s not easy to come home and read some more for pleasure.  But I love books, and I’d rather nod off at night while reading than nod off while watching some mindless TV show.

I’m not very systematic about my reading choices.  Kish is; she peruses the New York Times book review and uses the excellent Columbus Public Library on-line resources to reserve books that look interesting.  I tend to focus on one genre — such as biographies, for example — and read books exclusively in that genre until I’m ready to move on to another one.

issac-asimov-predictionsSeveral months ago I asked Richard what he was reading, and he said he was in the middle of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy, part of which I’d read in high school.  He recommended the series, so I picked it up . . . and enjoyed it immensely.  Since then I’ve read Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, as well as some other assorted Asimov and Heinlein efforts.  I’ve always liked science and science fiction — one of the first pieces I ever wrote on this blog was about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, one of my all-time favorite books — and I’ve decided that I want to get a better grounding in what the science fiction genre has to offer, both in terms of the other authors, like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, who helped to create science fiction’s golden age, and the more recent writers who have been well-received by critics and readers alike.

I’ve taken to making internet searches for sci fi “best” lists, and on the basis of those searches I’ve just started John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and I’ve got Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon next in line. I’d be happy to get any other recommendations on worthwhile sci-fi that Webner House readers are willing to share.

Is Grandpa Safe?

One of the oldest themes in science fiction is time travel, and one of the oldest story lines in the time travel genre deals with the paradoxes of going back in time.  What if you went back into time and, like Marty McFly, did something that changed the future course of events so dramatically that you never actually came into being?

It’s called the Grandfather Paradox.  Specifically, what if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather before he had the chance to father your mother or your father?  And if you did, and your parents and, ultimately, you never existed as a result, then how could you have been here to go back into time and kill dear old Granddad in the first place?

Science fiction deals with this in all kinds of interesting ways — postulating, for example, the creation of parallel universes every time a back-in-time traveler messes with the existing continuum of events and offs an ancestor — but science isn’t so easily satisfied.  It’s clear that forward time travel actually can occur under Einstein’s theory of relativity and concepts of time dilation; tests have proven that as a spacecraft’s speed increases, a clock on board the ship runs more slowly than a clock back on Earth.  In short, blast off and travel fast and far enough, and you’ll return to a world where your children are older than you are.

Einstein’s theories also suggest that travel back in time is theoretically possible, because the interaction between gravity and spacetime means that if a sufficient gravitational field existed, a closed timelike curve could be created and the time traveler could travel along that curve to the past.  Some scientists, like Stephen Hawking, argue that the Grandfather Paradox means that backward time travel and therefore closed timelike curves cannot exist, and they puckishly argue that the fact that we aren’t currently besieged by future beings who’ve figured out how to journey back in time means such travel is not possible.

Other scientists, however, accept the possibility of moving along a closed timelike curve and have been testing theories that would prevent Grandpa’s untimely demise.  One theory focuses on consistency, and another on correlation.  The “consistency” theory argues that any object that enters a closed timelike curve must exit the curve with the same properties — which evidently means that, thanks to your self-directed consistency, you couldn’t go back and kill your grandfather and prevent your own existence.  Scientists have actually tried to test this theory, using polarized photons launched through a time loop simulator, and the tests showed that the simulated time-traveling photons had the same properties the theory would predict.  Another theory contemplates a kind of “post-selection” concept that (I think) means that you couldn’t go back into time unless you had already gone back into time and were therefore part of the causal chain that created the world in which you live.  The time loop is closed, and whatever you would do on your backward trip would inevitably be what you had already done.

Like everything in quantum physics, it’s all very weird and confusing, and of course the theoretical physicists don’t explain why anyone would want to go back into time and murder their own grandfather, anyway.  But the upshot of the theories and testing seems to be that, even if backward time travel could occur, Grandpa apparently is safe.  All grandfathers and potential future grandfathers can now breathe a sigh of relief.

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

Considering The Self-Driving Car

Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers.  The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.

According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes.  (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.)  It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals.  The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors.  Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.

Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians.  If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury.  Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper.  But the safety arguments go deeper than that.  They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.

I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings.  We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security.  Sorry, but I don’t like it.

Part Of The Oneworld Alliance

Recently I booked a flight on American Eagle. Imagine my surprise, then, when the flight attendant announced that although I was technically on an American Eagle flight, I actually was being transported by the Oneworld Alliance.

The Oneworld Alliance? It sounds like the name for a vaguely fascist global government in some near-future sci-fi novel in which the rights of individuals are crushed in the name of collective advances, but it’s actually the name of a group of airlines that includes American Airlines, as well as British Airways, Japan Air Lines, and Qantas. Oneworld caters to frequent travelers and offers mileage perks to people who travel on airlines in the alliance.

It turns out that many airlines are part of alliances that offer the same kinds of benefits, and the other two alliances have similarly evocative names. One is the Star Alliance, which sounds like the successor to the Soviet Union and includes United Airlines, US Airways, and Air Canada, among many other carriers, and the other is SkyTeam, which sounds like — and is — the spunky upstart that includes Delta, Air France, and Aeroflot and probably was the name of the defense forces in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

I’m sure there are many savvy travelers who pay careful attention to booking their travel on one alliance so as to maximize their airline miles and resulting benefits. I don’t; I just focus on out-of-pocket cost and time of departure and arrival, and I try to fly on Southwest whenever possible because they rarely cancel flights. So I didn’t care who was flying me home on that occasion — but I did feel a certain pride in knowing that, for a brief instant at least, I was a part of the Oneworld Alliance.

Ender’s Game

I think Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a sci-fi classic.  The concept of children as warriors, and the Battle Room where they hone their strategic and tactical skills, make the novel stand out from your standard science fiction fare.

I always feel some trepidation when a book that I’ve enjoyed gets made into a movie — but when it’s going to happen, all you can do is grit your teeth and hope that the Hollywood process hasn’t totally ruined what you liked about the story.  Ender’s Game will be hitting the big screen this fall, and the trailer looks pretty good.  The movie features Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley in key adult roles, and a newcomer, Asa Butterfield, as the young Ender Wiggin.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The Ethics Of Killer Robots

The United Nations Human Rights Council is considering the topic of killer robots — preprogrammed killing machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield.

Although no such devices have been deployed to date, they reportedly are in development.  The UN Council is expected to call for a moratorium on their development so that the ethics of their use can be debated.  (Good luck with that one!  If dictators or “rebels” fighting for control of a country could get their hands on such a weapon, does anyone think for a moment that a moratorium imposed by some powerless UN Council in Geneva would stop them?  But, I digress.)  The argument is that killer robots raise “serious moral questions about how we wage war” and blur the line in the “traditional approach” of a “warrior” and a “weapon.”

This kind of abstract, clinical analysis of where war-making technology has taken us makes me scratch my head.  Romantic notions of a “warrior” and a “weapon” locked in some kind of single-combat situation don’t seem to have a lot to do with modern warfare.  Technological advances not only have made fighting more lethal — David and his slingshot wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a guy with a flamethrower — but also have increasingly divorced the immediacy of death and its consequences from the decision-maker.  Whether it is missiles, or drones, or roadside bombs that kill indiscriminately, we’ve already moved far from the warrior/weapon model.

Killer robots are just the inevitable next step.  All we can hope for is that their developers and deployers have seen enough science fiction to worry about Skynet and giving birth to the Matrix, and know that they better be sure that the soulless robot killers they unleash aren’t capable of turning on their creators.

Mining The Asteroid Belt

Any sci-fi buff has read stories about hardy souls who fly between the asteroids and mine the hurtling chunks of rock for minerals.  Usually the heroic asteroid miner-pilot is a gruff, swashbuckling character with a taste for adventure and a heart of gold.

Now the concept of mining the asteroid belt seems to have moved a step closer to reality — except that the mining will be done by robots, not adventurers.

A consortium of wealthy entrepreneurs has announced a plan to use telescopes to identify likely candidates for mining, with a specific focus on gold and platinum.  The plans would then move to establishing observation platforms and a fuel depot in orbit, and finally to the mining of asteroids and shipment of minerals back to Earth.

Obviously, we are still far away from commercial exploration of space.  Nevertheless, those of us who dream of more robust space exploration must pin our hopes on profit-seeking entities, because our cash-strapped governments are unlikely to do much.  If profits can be made, entrepreneurs who are willing to accept risks will figure out a way to realize those profits.

The fact that companies are finally starting to look carefully at space tourism, asteroid mining, and other obvious commercial activities in space is a good sign.  Serious efforts will mean a focus on improving the technology, mission planning, delivery systems, and other processes that will make commercial use of space resources increasingly viable.

That means our grandchildren might not be swashbuckling asteroid mining pilots — but they could get a chance to spend some time among the stars.

The UFO At The Bottom Of The Sea

There is a UFO at the bottom of the Baltic Sea — maybe.

Sonar has located a curious disk-shaped object on the floor of the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Finland.  Enthusiastic treasure hunters and UFO buffs say it looks like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.  (I think it looks more like Pac Man.)  It’s about 200 feet in diameter and lies at the end of a churned up track of sea floor.  No one knows for sure what it is, and the speculation is that it might be a Russian spacecraft or a UFO.

The discoverers don’t think they can get investors to underwrite exploration of the object, because there is no promise of lost gold or silver.  So, they’re hoping a TV production company will shell out for a Geraldo Rivera-type expedition to find out what the object is. Of course, in all likelihood the result would be as disappointing as the show where Geraldo opened an old safe and didn’t find anything of note.

It’s wildly improbable, and it sounds like a trite and fantastic science fiction plot — but let your mind wander for a moment, and imagine the reaction in the world if we discovered a spacecraft burrowed in the silty bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Close Encounters In The Asteroid Belt

Although the space shuttle program is ending — more on that in a later post — U.S. space exploration efforts continue unabated through use of unmanned probes.  Tomorrow one such probe, called Dawn, will begin to orbit Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Once it settles into orbit, Dawn’s mission will be to photograph the asteroid, deploy instruments that can detect the minerals and elements found on the asteroid, and gather data that will allow scientists to assess the geological forces that shaped the asteroid.  After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid.

For science fiction fans like me, the mineral composition of the asteroid will be of the most interest.  Lots of good science fiction deals with asteroid miners and mining colonies, and potential exploitation of minerals is one of the reasons why space exploration may end up being of great interest to private concerns, too.  If we learn that Vesta possesses a treasure trove of minerals, and Dawn proves that navigating among the asteroids can be safely accomplished, we may move one step closer to significant commercial interest in space — and in this era of tight governmental budgets, moving forward in space exploration and technology probably will require significant investment by private entities.

The Book Of . . . Enough Already!

Last night Kish and I decided to watch a movie on HBO On Demand.  We ended up picking The Book of Eli.  We both like Denzel Washington, I like science fiction.  Why not?

Only a few minutes in, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this movie already,” even though I hadn’t.  And that is because the ugly future, post-apocalyptic, lone hero movie has been done to death.  How is The Book of Eli different, for example, from The Road Warrior?  Something horrible has happened, civilization has crumbled, and the animal nature of the remaining humans is being acted out in the most gruesome fashion.  A lone guy appears, fights and beats and kills dozens of subhuman survivors, and then helps to set humanity back on the road to civilization.  They even share religious themes.  The only difference is the explicit Biblical aspect of The Book of Eli.

Apocalyptic themes have long been popular in science fiction books and science fiction movies.  On The Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Road, and The Stand come readily to mind.  Isn’t it about time that authors and screenwriters start looking at futuristic movies involving an Earth that falls somewhere between Star Trek and cataclysm?

Earths, Everywhere

The Kepler mission, a space observatory designed to examine deep space, has only been operational for six weeks but it already is starting to pay dividends.  The observatory has located 140 suspected Earth-like planets among 700 suspected new planet discoveries.  Previously, telescopes looking outside our solar system have identified only large gas giants.

Scientists need to confirm that the suspected planets are, in fact, planets, but their speculation based on the findings to date is that there may be as many as 100 million habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

Imagine — the possibility of 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy, some of which may have their own life forms.  Increasingly, science fiction is becoming reality.  When will we begin to boldly go where no man has gone before?

Grok

Today I met with the new class of summer clerks at our Columbus office and, in discussing legal research, used the word “grok.” Of course, none of these clerks had heard of the word, or the book Stranger in a Strange Land from which the word came, or its author Robert A. Heinlein. Well, what do you expect? These folks didn’t graduate from high until after 9/11.

For the record, “grok” means to understand at a complete, intuitive level, and I’m glad to see that on-line dictionaries, at least, recognize the word. It is hard to believe, though, that Stranger in a Strange Land has faded into obscurity. The book was popular among kids when I was growing up, and the word “grok” was used with some frequency in everyday conversation. (Hence, the saying: “I grok Spock.”) What’s next? Will people forget Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or Watership Down and the joys of silflaying under the moon?