Stuff I worked on this week.

My 300 word fiction for this week's Antarctic writer's group exercise. "You have a couple who have come to the ice. One of the couple convinced/coerced the other to come along. There is a 3rd party love interest. Do something (anything) in 300 words."

Ok, I did this.

Goodbye True Love

She had a way of looking at him he could feel. Human aura. Radiation of the flesh. Windows to the soul, open to the bright white fire inside.

He'd felt it across continents. The width of a galley table was no obstacle.

There was a single plate on his tray upon which he'd spooned something that resembled the residue of a drying marsh back home. Home. Where was that?

"You're doing this to get back at me for making you go," she said, and he felt every word. It could have heard them through a gale. He could see her with his eyes closed. A blessing. The curse. The spark of instant recognition that had drawn them together five years earlier. Marriage gave it a name. It would not disappear as he thought it would.

"No. I’m not like you. I didn't plan it. It just happened."

“You can stay.”

“You’re giving me permission now? For god’s sake. Everyone knows.”

Now she was breathing in those short strokes he knew preceded the torrent, and he hated himself for being the cause. But he’d made the decision he would not undo.

"Is she retroing, too...?" and then she couldn't speak.

He nodded. “She quit. We’ll find work in Australia.”

He felt her say, "Will I see you again?" her words barely afloat on the air.

Sheet metal forks clinked against stoneware. The sound of machines breaking.

Quietly, “When am I going to see you again?”

He got out of his chair and crouched beside her.

“What were you thinking?”

“You hated it so much. I thought I could make you happy.”

He said, “I came for you. I was leaving because that’s what you wanted.”

He kissed her on the forehead, said, “Next time, you’ll get it right.”

Left her in the galley.

John Titor

Last week I read a book called John Titor: A Time Traveler’s Tale. The idea of John Titor is that he's from the year 2036. The idea of John Titor is that we can be anyone we want on the internet as long as we write well enough. "John" kept people engaged for about 3 years before bailing out. It's like the story K-PAX, complete with insane people.

Between early 1998 and March of 2001 someone who called himself John Titor and began posting notes to some newsgroup or another, and told his story of the year 2036. The story is this:

After the elections of 2004, the government clamps down on civil liberties to the extent that ordinary citizens begin disappearing, the way they did in Chile under Pinochet. Acts of civil disobedience turn into Waco-like skirmishes, and eventually, divide the nation in civil war. By 2008 the fabric of American society is shredded into warring factions, similar to what happened to Yugoslavia.

Sensing the instability has opened an opportunity to strike, the Russians, and then the Chinese, launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S. around 2015. The U.S. retaliates. One thing that hasn't been rendered inoperable by bloody civil conflict in 2015 is the nuclear defense system.

In a brief nuclear war (they all must be brief), all the major cities of the U.S. are wiped out, but similarly, even more significant devastation is wrought upon the cities of eastern Europe and China.

At the end of the exchange, nobody's got any nukes left but the U.S., which now fragments into five separate regions consisting of what's left of the fifty original states. Each region has its own president, united under a modified constitution.

By 2036, stability has returned, but the U.S. weapons programs are still going strong. Nuclear winter did not occur, but huge sections of each of the continents are uninhabitable. Water is in precious supply, and there are places where the air is unbreathable.

Time travel has been invented by the U.S. Military, and John Titor has been trained and sent back to the year 1975 to retrieve an IBM 5100 series desktop computer because it has the ability to, "interpret between APL, UNIX, and BASIC." John was chosen because his own grandfather worked on the IBM 5100 product, and he has connections.

John's time machine is a 500 lb box whose secret sauce are two rotating, charged, black holes each smaller than the size of an electron, held in a charged bottle. The interaction between the gravitational fields in these black holes produces the ability to cross time.

There are no temporal paradoxes in John's story, nor is there any need for John to accurately predict the future. A time traveler crosses "world lines". The 2036 John left to come to 1998 was 2.5% different than the one he left. When he visits his parents, he meets himself as a 3-year old. There is no paradox. If he was to kill the 3-year old him, that boy would simply cease to exist on this world line, which is different than the world line John departed. In fact, John can never return to his world line. He will return to a universe some small number of percentage points different from the one he left.

In John's universe, for instance, the Y2K problem caused a social cataclysm. He predicted it to everyone on his message board. When it didn't happen, he chalked it up to something that fell between the cracks of his 2.5%.

He wasn't around long enough for 9/11/01. But he didn't predict it, either. Though he did talk a lot about plane crashes.

He managed to dodge real physicists questions. Simple things like--if the time machine doesn't move in space, but only in time, and you go back to a certain point in time in, say, 1975, who's to say the earth is in the same place when you get there? The earth travels around the sun, but more importantly, the sun is orbiting the center of the galaxy. So there's no "there" there.

Computers solve that relativity problem, apparently. The also solve the problem that if in the open field where you started your time journey was back then, the location of a giant granite monument to the inventor of fire-retardant sofa cushion foam, computers prevent you from "materializing" inside the granite.

And so on. I was able to suspend disbelief long enough to get to the part where John explains that the only way in 2036 to "translate" between APL, UNIX, and BASIC was an archaic piece of IBM hardware that apparently ran all those "programming languages".

Oh, and by the way, UNIX has a flaw which will cause it to become non-functional in 2038. We all know that.

John also feels the GOSUB statement, which he feels is similar in all three "languages", is the key to solving much of what ails the world.

First of all, a single random molecule of computer literacy cures you of any belief you might fear to develop in the story.

Next. Why, oh why?

Why couldn't someone actually smart have come up with it? I would have enjoyed it if it was consistent and plausible.

There are the typical grainy UFO-style photos included. One, apparently, of a time-traveler teacher shining a laser pointer through the gravitational warp caused by the microsingularities, and bends the beam 90 degrees, right in front of the guy, who is not torn apart by tidal forces.

And I remember APL fondly. I was sure, as a young college student, that all things would eventually be solved and automated using it. Unfortunately for me, despite my dedicating several semesters to it, it died an ignominious death. Few people alive today have any reason to suspect something other than the ELIZA program was written in APL. Maybe something buried in Cheyenne mountain used APL.

There was an APL that ran under UNIX, as I remember. But it was about as popular as iced tea at an igloo festival.

But what ruined John's story for me was not his abuse of computer science (he claimed he was not an expert and could be explaining things wrong), his abuse of his knowledge of firearms (he was supposed to be in a militia armed only with slug guns--there's a reason you don't see shotguns with scopes), nor his abuse of physics (also, not an expert), but rather his abuse of logic.

If time travel exists the way John Titor says, then the future exists (because he comes from it). If the future exists, then the past certainly exists (because he's visiting it), and while that sounds like an obvious "duh", I offer the question, "where?" Is there a static version of all time in some reality memory bank somewhere? Is there a frozen version of me, at my moment of birth, ready to be replayed as soon as someone figures out how to get back to it? And then where do you store the version that's visited by a time traveler? And what about the whole entropy problem, that kind of gives time a specific direction (toward more entropy)?

If the future exists, and I'm in it, what decisions did I make to get to those points? Free will. Yadda. yadda.

See, my problem with time travel is that it presumes the past and future are these massively, somehow co-existing lumps of stuff that are visitable like a moving diorama in a museum. That seems just plain stupid to me, and I'm going to guess it does to just about anyone who thinks nihilism is the funniest part of The Big Lebowski.

I think, then, that there simply is no past and no future--at least, these things do not exist. The past is in our memory banks and because of the way time works, we have no memory of the future, but all that exists is right here right now. There is no time travel, not because it's impossible, but because if you try it--there's just plain nowhere to go, except OUT. You go to a different universe, as Titor intimates. But I have a hard time believing those universes have enough interaction to cause similarities in history.

Again--try to go visit George Washington crossing the Delaware, and you have about as much chance doing that as discovering a unicorn or Marley's ghost or Fred Flintstone's house. These things, all of them, do not exist. We have memories of George, and certainly his imprint is upon us Americans. But the plain and simple fact he no longer exists is undeniable. And if you went backward in time, you would not find him, either, because that's all gone.

What you do then, traveling in time as John Titor suggests, is move into alternate universes with no possibility of return. I think he got that part he got right. The Penrose diagrams he refers to, do indeed indicate the possibility of worm holing into alternate universes. But what does that mean, even? An alternate universe might just be another part of this universe, a space-like distance away.

And that is really boring and uninteresting, and not at all what the author of the John Titor story had in mind when he dreamed up his novel.

My theory is that whoever wrote the John Titor story is a survivalist living in rural Florida, reading popular books on quantum mechanics and "this or that for Dummies", and not getting enough of it right to convince a really bored, easily convinced, guy like me it might be real.

It's not even a good try. It was the type of book that when finished makes one think: "Would my time have been better spent masturbating or perhaps even reading the 1963 income tax code?"

That's why the book had to be self-published. But hey, he got my $15.95. No need for him to get yours.

The Nazis at Blue Cross

Blue Cross is going to drop my daughter's health insurance because she turned 19. We have to prove she is a full-time student.

Fair enough. Monday last week, I got in the mail a letter from Blue Cross explaining this policy and asking for proof of her full-time studentship. Because I'm anal retentive about such things, I immediately put the appropriate documents in the self-addressed envelope and mailed them.

The next day (read:24 hours), I got an identical letter. Because I am anal retentive about such things I immediately put the appropriate documents in the self-addressed envelope and mailed them in.

The next day (read:24 hours) I got an identical letter at work, this time. Because I am anal retentive about such things I immediately put the appropriate documents in the self-addressed envelope and mailed them in.

The next day (read: 24 hours) I got a letter at my home written in past tense. It said, "We have dropped your daughter from your coverage on March 1st, 2005, because you have not provided the appropriate documents to prove she is a full-time student. You are eligible to enroll her in a separate insurance policy by California law, blah blah blah.

Proof positive, someone has a time machine, and that events are never causal, and nothing exists that's rational in the world of American health insurance. My entire time travel theory is blown out of the water by the underpaid martinets at Blue Cross, who have managed to send me a letter from the future of an alternate universe where the U.S. Post Office fails to deliver even one of three identical letters mailed on three successive days.

We need to get a qualified physicist involved in this case, because I certainly cannot comprehend it with my feeble gray matter.