Robots vs Your Crappy Job

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

If robots take all of our jobs, how are we expected to make a living? Are we all going to be idle and free to pursue our heart’s desire? Or will automation create a permanent class of rich owners, and a permanent underclass of jobless serfs? The answer is not anywhere near that dramatic.

In the economic struggle between robots and humans, always bet on the humans.

join robot uprising

As technology grinds forward, particularly artificial intelligence, the ability to automate tasks will grow to an increasingly large percentage of the current jobs held by us puny meatbags. This raises alarm among some futurists. How can we have a society without jobs?

[This is different from the Inevitable Robot Uprising.]

Perhaps, they go on, we will resort to some Basic Minimum Income, so that those displaced by whining servos and blinky lights can still continue to eat and breed. Annual global economic output divided by current populations comes out to around $8000 US per head – if you were wondering. That’s actually a raise for a lot of the developed world, but pretty hard to live on in the US. And that’s ALL of global GDP. People proposing this sort of thing are actually throwing around $6000 a year. Even with food, housing, a few outfits and healthcare covered gratis, that does not make for a standard of living to aspire to.

It gets worse: any survey of history will reveal that resources tend to accumulate at the top, over time. The rich have always found ways to grow richer. Only war and catastrophe have successfully forced any meaningful redistribution of wealth. We’re due for some war and or catastrophe, but it will not do to depend upon it.

Happily, that’s not the way it works at all. Robots are not not going to take our jobs. Well not most of them. The aggregate effect of automation redefines jobs rather than eliminate them.

When ATMs started popping up in the 1970s, it is was widely feared that this would lead to the end of the line for bank tellers. Forty five years later, bank tellers are still a thing. While individual bank branches went down from an average of 20 tellers each to merely 13 tellers, the lower costs allowed banks to expand the number of branches. The overall number of tellers has still declined 10-20% depending on how you frame the data, but they are all still around. The metal boxes outside allowed tellers to concentrate on solving problems rather than routine transactions. Also, there remains a percentage of customers who will never trust those newfangled things out there.

In most sectors the aggregate effect of automation is improved productivity which, in general, increases the number of available jobs. Far more people are employed making, selling, driving, parking or insuring automobiles then ever made their livelihoods directly from horses.

(This is actually a misleading example. The real victim of the automobile was the train. But even there, overall employment expanded.)

Automation does not eliminate jobs so much as it changes them. It is that change and the pace of that change that stresses society.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaadcaaaajdfkn2rmn2uzlwfkndctngq1ms04m2ywlwvlmzrmyzrhnjq5yw

If your job is boring, then your job is at risk of being automated. OK. This would then, in theory, free you up to do something the bots can’t do. Any society is actually riddled with jobs that need to be done.  I can look around my house and identify a dozen things that need to be done right now – and so can you. Every civilization has this problem. The trick is making a living at it.

While robots excel at boring, they struggle with artistic, social or empathic skills, or any task where the variables change constantly.  Basically, things we generally want to do anyway.  

So the trick to making a living in the 21st century is adaptability. It’s not enough to learn. We have to learn how to learn, because there are robots that write blogs. Not well – but they do it.

They key to outpacing the robots is an education system and ethos that is easy to access, flexible and lifelong. And there is no downside to any of that, even without automatons clanking at our heels.

Once humans learn how to learn, they tend to keep doing that, given an opportunity.

 

SOURCES:

http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21700758-will-smarter-machines-cause-mass-unemployment-automation-and-anxiety

What determines vulnerability to automation, experts say, is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine. Machines can already do many forms of routine manual labour, and are now able to perform some routine cognitive tasks too. As a result, says Andrew Ng, a highly trained and specialised radiologist may now be in greater danger of being replaced by a machine than his own executive assistant: “She does so many different things that I don’t see a machine being able to automate everything she does any time soon.”

 

 

Figures published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis show that in America, employment in non-routine cognitive and non-routine manual jobs has grown steadily since the 1980s, whereas employment in routine jobs has been broadly flat (see chart).

 

 Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.

[…]

But despite the wide range of views expressed, pretty much everyone agrees on the prescription: that companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed. That would provide the best defence in the event that the pessimists are right and the impact of artificial intelligence proves to be more rapid and more dramatic than the optimists expect.

 

http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21700760-artificial-intelligence-will-have-implications-policymakers-education-welfare-and

Even outside the AI community, there is a broad consensus that technological progress, and artificial intelligence in particular, will require big changes in the way education is delivered, just as the Industrial Revolution did in the 19th century. As factory jobs overtook agricultural ones, literacy and numeracy became much more important. Employers realised that more educated workers were more productive, but were reluctant to train them themselves because they might defect to another employer. That prompted the introduction of universal state education on a factory model, with schools supplying workers with the right qualifications to work in factories. Industrialisation thus transformed both the need for education and offered a model for providing it. The rise of artificial intelligence could well do the same again, making it necessary to transform educational practices and, with adaptive learning, offering a way of doing so.

 

In a paper published in 2013, James Heckman and Tim Kautz of America’s National Bureau of Economic Research argue for more emphasis on “character skills” such as perseverance, sociability and curiosity, which are highly valued by employers and correlate closely with employees’ ability to adapt to new situations and acquire new skills. Character is a skill, not a trait, they say, and schemes that teach it are both lasting and cost-effective.

http://www.businessinsider.com/automation-us-workers-carrier-trump-2016-12

 

https://www.ft.com/content/0dea9b34-d8e0-11e6-944b-e7eb37a6aa8e

[Financial Times – JANUARY 12, 2017

by: Richard Waters

High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our T&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights.

https://www.ft.com/content/0dea9b34-d8e0-11e6-944b-e7eb37a6aa8e

 

The variables that will affect the rate of adoption are huge. In a new report on automation this week, McKinsey estimates that half of all the tasks people perform at work could be automated using technologies that have already been proven. But this estimate gives no clue about how long it will take.

[Who the fuck is McKinsey? The high quality global journalists do not say.]

http://diginomica.com/2016/11/17/an-optimistic-view-of-bot-driven-automation-on-the-future-of-jobs/

By Denis PombriantNovember 17, 2016

New jobs arise when new capabilities, technical and otherwise, innovate them into existence. There weren’t digital marketers until there was marketing automation, for instance. Heck, computer programmers had no existence until computers. At one point a computer was just someone who was very good at math performing calculations all day.

 

https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Slow-Motion-Automation

November 7, 2016 / Winter 2016 / Issue 85

by Vinnie Mirchandani

I examined people at work in more than 50 settings: accounting firms and banks, the battlefront and digital agencies, the oil patch and restaurants, R&D labs and shop floors, warehouses and wineries. And it is clear that the old divisions among professions and trades have dissolved. We’re no longer white- or blue-collar workers. We’re all silicon-collar workers, because technology is reshaping all our workplaces.

 

Luther Simjian, a prolific inventor, convinced some New York City banks to try out his Bankograph, the predecessor of the modern-day ATM, in 1960. Almost six decades later, although mobile banking has taken off and ATMs are ubiquitous, our downtowns and strip malls are still studded with bank branches staffed by human tellers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the U.S. still had 520,000 teller jobs in 2014, and a gradual decline of only 40,000 positions is projected over the next decade. Put another way, virtually every bank customer has the ability and means to conduct automated banking business, but tens of millions still choose to do so in person.

 

Economic history is rife with examples of inventions that have significant ripples and unintended consequences. Paradoxically, automation can actually lead to more human work in the fields in which it might have been expected to obliterate it. The introduction of UPC codes in many stores starting in the mid-1970s led to improved inventory control and increased store sales. Grocery checkout jobs thus increased. Email and e-commerce may have reduced the demand for the delivery of letters, but they have not killed off the U.S. Postal Service. In fact, e-commerce has created an entirely new category of postal jobs related to delivering items ordered online. The robots at the mail marketing company Valpak and those at the distribution centers of Amazon and other companies help keep more than 600,000 postal employees busy.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-12-13/robot-workers-coexistence-is-possible

 

Making stuff up about TRAPPIST-1 and the Seven Dwarves

Tags

, , , ,

Unless we are captured by alien slavers and dragged there, we are not going to be around when (if) human starships reach the seven rocky dwarf planets orbiting tightly around TRAPPIST-1.  Why wait for that – when we can just make stuff up. Come on – NASA wants you to!

2981_t1d_system

How NASA imagines the Seven dwarves

If you want a fictional setting for novels or role-playing games that has space travel, but you do not want the Hand-wave physics of FTL, or the sitting-in-a-can-trying-not -to-lose-your-mind-while being-baked-by-radiation reality of realistic space-flight, the recent trove of planets hugging a tiny star called TRAPPIST-1 is your answer.

TRAPPIST-1 (named for the Chilean telescope array they used to study it) is a M dwarf star, in this case about 8% of the mass of our own sun, located only 40 light years away towards the constellation Aquarius. In the fall of 2016, scientists used 500 hours of Spitzer time (an orbiting infrared telescope) to search for exoplanets and found a horde.

ssc2017-01g_inline

No less than seven were found, all in or near Trappy’s theoretical habitable zone;  the “Goldilocks Zone” where liquid water might be present. These would be very close orbits – well within the orbit of Mercury. The closest [b] has an orbital period of 1.5 days, and the farthest [h] has an orbital period of about 20 days. They are fairly close to Earth sized, only one is more than 40% removed by estimated mass. (d is pretty small at .41 – but that still makes it larger than Mars). They are all most likely tidally locked, meaning one side always faces the Trappy while the other side always faces space.

This is about all that’s known about them. Studies are planned to try and determine atmospheric composition and the like, but that’s going to  take years. Let’s make stuff up.

ssc2017-01f_inline

For your reference

Three of these worlds (e, f and g)  are in the Good Green Zone of habitation, meaning the possibility of Earth like temperatures. However, those models kinda assume the worlsd spins on an axis relative to the sun – which is not likely the case here. But, the tidal locks may mean that the dark sides of b, c and d may be cool enough, and the light side of h may be warm enough.

All of that, though, depends upon what atmospheres they have which could be anywhere from zippo like Mercury to crushing acidic greenhouse of doom like Venus.  Let’s speculate to limit some variables:

B is really close, and probably really irradiated. H is actually almost twice as far out as g, and h is the one they don’t have good mass estimates on. Let’s say both of those are barren. Let’s also go with the odds and say that tiny d doesn’t have enough atmosphere to hold a robust biosystem. That still leaves you four worlds.

Inhabitants of one of these planets could get to their nearest neighbor with not much more effort than it took us to get to the moon. We’re talking weeks – not years (as would be the case going to Mars) and that’s a far more manageable technical feat, but in terms of supplies and radiation. So whether you’re imagining human colonizers or native inhabitants or both – they could readily get to the point of back and forth between worlds.

So you could multiple sets of competing ecosystems: not only dark-side and light side, but native vs nearby world and native vs distant colonizer transplants. That’s a niches to hide weird monsters in.

If I am commanded by editorial Gods to come up with a setting based on this system, I’m actually doing a steampunk setting – except replace coal with wind – which on a tidally locked planet is both fierce and constant. Civilization might cluster arund the meridian belt seperating the light and dark side. Shadows are basically permanent; the Sun barely moves along the one horizon. On the other horizon, only clouds will hide the stars.

The entire meridian would be circumnavigated by train, of course.

That’s just the one that’s most Earth-like. That’s the one humans landed on and finally, after much struggle, seized control of. The natives then fled to the nearby planets, where they huddle together with former rivals in coalition against these new invaders for forty light years away.

Why steampunk? Humans aren’t supposed to be there. Anything as advanced as radio would give us away to Powerful Enforcers.

M dwarfs and similar stars make up 75% of known stars – they are the default, at least in our neighborhood of the galaxy. If TRAPPIST-1 is typical, we may be surrounded by more rocky neighbors than we imagine.

SOURCES:

http://www.popsci.com/NASA-trappist-1-planets#page-2

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170222130941.htm

 

NASA

https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1/

[photo source]

http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/images/6286-ssc2017-01f-TRAPPIST-1-Statistics-Table

[image source]

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/earth-size-planets-the-newest-weirdest-generation

Nature (summary)

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v542/n7642/full/nature21360.html

Similar situation with a gas giant in hab zone:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/38_Virginis_b

 

The time to talk about Arrival has arrived

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The movie Arrival doesn’t just make you think about complex things; it makes you think about the way you think about complex things. Serious spoilers about the movie and the nature of time and thought.

 

 

 

 

She knew the whole time how it would end, and she did it anyway. Did she have to – in a sense that she was metaphysically, mathematically bound to do it that way? Or did she let events fold out the way they did because she valued the end result?

Ever have a well-meaning relation ask you “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?”  In this case, my Aunt A is replaced by fifteen foot squids from outer space.

Yeah, yeah, the movie,  based upon the 1998 novella “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang,  is ostensibly about First Contact, and how we, as a species, may not be able to rely upon each other after all when the shit really gets real.

But really this is a movie about accepting loss.

Between the giant seven-armed squids and their mathematically complex coffee stains, and  all the death and divorce and grief and acceptance comes time travel at least by information.

It seems the protagonist, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) flashes forward with visions of the future. Not only does this provide a deus-ex-machina mechanism for our heroes to convince world leaders to do the right thing at the last possible moment, but she knew, as she’s falling in love with the other character (mathematician Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner), that it ends badly.

She knew before they kissed.

She did it anyway.

The aliens knew all along that humans would behave badly, but engaged us in good faith anyway because they know that our future gets better, to the benefit of both species.  Time is not linear for our giant space squids. They see their whole reality as a preview trailer cut randomly with a flashback episode interspersed with the occasional live broadcast. They see our dependence on a rational sequence of events as impairment.

As Banks decodes their language, though, the process changes her brain structure to the point where she flashes forward, at least in her mind, to future events. That’s the big science fiction conceit of the film: that language itself can determine the way we think.

If you knew that your brainy, convoluted philosophy essay of an SF film, with a female linguist as your main character, deliberate non linear storytelling, one single explosion and no boobs would be a hit anyway, you would make it? What if you knew it would flop? Would you make it anyway?

The language-brain conceit is called Linguistic Relativity, and really no one believes that it could change your brain to the point where you have super powers. And the reveal about the true sequence of events relies a little too heavily on the basic agelessness of Amy Adams. Those are really the only two gripes I would have about the film.

IMDB reports Ted Chiang, who wrote the novella the film is based upon, approved the film, saying, “I think it’s that rarest of the rare in that it’s both a good movie and a good adaptation… And when you consider the track record of adaptations of written science fiction, that’s almost literally a miracle.”

For every episode of willful ignorance that comes across your screen, remember that Arrival got made, made well, and did exactly what it was supposed to do. The more movies (and other media) we absorb like this, the more we might be able to face the uncertain future with courage.

 

SOURCES

IMDB

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2543164/?ref_=ttmi_tt

Slate

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/11/18/all_your_arrival_plot_questions_explained.html

Linguistic Relativity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

Worth reading for depth

http://taylorholmes.com/2016/11/12/movie-arrival-explained-interview-eric-heisserer/

IMDB on Ted Chiang

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5384213/

Your Impossible Pasts

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I do not know what I did or did not do, but I went back in time to walk my dog, and now Donald trump is about to become president. That makes every bit as much sense as the TV version of Flashpoint.

the-flash-cw-poster-thumb

Not a picture of my dog – see bottom of post for that.

We had a good time. Dogs are a lot easier to manage when you don’t have kids (or non-outdoorsy adults). But I came back, and Donald Trump is somehow elected President.

And that’s one of a long list of strange things that definitely happened that I don’t remember.

If that sounds absurd – you’re right. It didn’t happen, and it couldn’t happen. Math forbids it.

Unless you’re on television.

467964

This is the entire premise for Timeless, which we have already discussed.

It is also informs the premise of Frequency. Frequency gets a bit of a pass because it makes no pretense as science, and it’s really about daddy issues. Doesn’t mean the gag is working, it’s just not as in-your-face demented about it the way Timeless is.

Then the folks over at the Flash did the Flashpoint storyline because it was a big deal in the comics, so they felt they needed to do it. Only in the comics it was an excuse to reboot the entire universe. The TV series was kinda working on its own terms, but Barry ran back in time to save his mom – again – and this time actually does it. And that was bad. So he goes back in tears and fixes it – again – and comes back and things are worse, but he mercifully stops there, and spends the rest of the season (so far) living with the consequences of a past which he cannot accurately remember.

There are two prohibitive continuity problems: one is memory and the other is math.

Here is the thing one that makes me crazy: no one should be unable to remember events they lived through solely because of time travel. Barry Allen should be able to remember events in the timeline he is in because he has actually lived them. Even if he remembers going back and creating Flashpoint, he should still remember events in the new timeline, because there was still a Barry Allen, and that Barry Allen was/is him.

There is no separate Barry Allen that he replaced. (Compare with Continuum – where there were two or more versions of various time travelers).

Even within the show, in the timeline where his mother lived, he remembered that timeline as if it were proper, and his old timeline as if it were a dream. It is explained that as those memories fade, “time is hardening” and eventually he will lose the memories of the old-old timeline altogether.  So before that happens, he repents, runs back, and undoes his undoing.

the-flash-season-2-runaway-dinosaur-image-3-600x401

“Then the Runaway Dinosaur ate the show-runner, and Donald Trump became president.”

Only now he remembers the old-old timeline, and the old-new timeline, but does not remember what changed in the new-new timeline, because, apparently, dramatic reveals are more important than continuity.

What happened there, Flash-folk? Did time harden backwards? Or did you just throw up your hands in the face of a weekly deadline and say “Oh well. Time travel is all nonsense – let’s just get to some feels!”

Time travel is certainly nonsense if you forget your own few rules. And constant nonsense is not going to induce me to make time to watch your increasingly silly show.

In review: At the end of season 1 when Barry learns he can time travel, he goes back in time to save his mother (who was murdered by a speedster), but gets there and besides that speedster, he finds an older version of himself, who waves him off. So Barry holds off, and his mommy dies. And we are all sad.

At the end of season two, Barry is having an emotional crisis that seemed manufactured for plot reasons, and goes back in time to save his mom again, and does so, capturing the evil speedster (Reverse Flash), and taking him back to the new-old present and imprisons him, while Barry enjoys an idyllic life with mum and dad and their 27 year old son still living at home.

Reverse Flash, while still evil, becomes the voice of reason, convincing Barry that this is All Wrong, and not just because of unlawfully imprisonment. (Unlawful imprisonment bothers none of the heroes in Flash). So Flash goes back, and lets Reverse Flash loose in the past, where he kills mom, again, and also runs amok in a broad plot arc of Legends of Tomorrow.

tumblr_lr4x6k5f1i1qclcgo

That’s right – Reverse Flash becomes the Voice of Reason

 

Legends of Tomorrow has a similar sub-plot going about Martin Stein’s daughter he accidentally brought about by convincing his younger self to be less of a shithead. Stein should totally remember his own daughter – and sometimes he has flashbacks about her. I think the rest of that plot, both Stein’s daughter and the antics of Reverse Flash throughout history, is still forming, so we shall give that some time to, er harden..

the-flash-wells-nora-allen-murder-theory

Nora always dies. Always.

Despite 3-5 speedsters from six different timelines running around her living room, Nora Allen is still dead. And all the nonsense surrounding that has robbed that event of any emotional impact it might have had.

Here’s the second problem: if you change the input variables, you inevitably change the outcome of the equation. We are the sum of our experiences, and if we go back and change those experiences, we become different people. Because math. People are stories, the liberal arts version of a formula, and if you can’t keep your story straight it’s hard to solve for x suspend belief and thereby stay interested.

Hard – but not impossible. The poor put-upon androids of Westworld have multiple versions of their pasts floating about in the chips. But we know there is an actual past – they just can’t remember. Eventually they, or at least we, will figure that out.

In the comics, the more time travelers visit a particular point in time the harder it becomes to change it. Or at least it should work that way. Maybe that’s head canon.

Nora Allen will always die, as did my poor dog. That point is fixed in history.

Sorry about Trump though. I feel bad about that.

20160520_100553

Max – 2001 ish to 2016. Totally not responsible for Donald Trump.

SOURCES

http://arrow.wikia.com/wiki/Season_3_(The_Flash)

http://www.cwtv.com/shows/the-flash/

http://www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/flashpoint

http://www.dccomics.com/blog/2016/10/03/dc-comics-101-why-is-flashpoint-so-important

http://heavy.com/entertainment/2014/10/the-flash-2014-tv-series-cast-episodes-dc-comics-villains/2/

 

Spooky Ghost Universes may be Real

Tags

, , ,

There’s a new scientific theory proposing that the spooky behavior of subatomic particles can be explained by the existence of multiple universes sharing space with our universe, but in different dimensions. But while all the headlines say it’s time travel, but no one really gets there.

It may be possible, if this theory bears out, to travel – or at least communicate – with alternate universes inhabiting different dimensions. And that would be cool and weird and awesome, but not time travel.

All of these universes coexist with us in the same time stream, and they would all have separate, different histories and futures.

The researchers in question, Dr. Dirk-Andre Deckert from the University of California, Dr. Michael Hall, and Professor Howard Wiseman both from Griffith University’s Center for Quantum Dynamics in Australia, published their theory in Physical Review X.

 

image-20150901-25717-1y3igv

“He’s touching me! Make him stop touching me!”

The theory suggests that the weird, counter-intuitive superposition of subatomic particles found in quantum mechanics can be explained by the influence of alternate universes, each in its own dimension, interacting with our universe at the quantum level; pulling on their identical counterparts in minute ways.

“One way to think about it is that they coexist in the same space as our universe, like ghost universes,” Wiseman told New Scientist.

They posit that this makes as much mathematical sense as any other explanation.

They write in the popular summary of their article:

The world we experience is just one of an enormous number of essentially classical worlds, and all quantum phenomena arise from a universal force of repulsion that prevents worlds from having identical physical configurations. Probabilities arise only because of our ignorance as to which world an observer occupies. This picture is all that is needed to explain bizarre quantum effects such as particles that tunnel through solid barriers and wave behavior in double-slit experiments.”

The different worlds theory has been around since the 1950’s, but in that version, the alternate universe created each time a particle is observed (seriously) are always separate and removed from each other. The Interlacing Worlds theory holds that they interact in tiny ways all the time.

“Our “many-interacting-worlds” approach hinges on the assumption that interactions between deterministically evolving worlds cause all quantum effects. Each world is simply the position of particles in three-dimensional space, and each would evolve according to Newton’s laws if there were no interworld interactions.”

ibid

The ultimate hope of their findings is to provide a framework for further research, particle wave functions, superposition, and even the nature of gravity.

Maybe there’s an alternate universe where Dr Who has a coherent continuity. But I wouldn’t count on it.

 

 

Arrival is worth your journey

Tags

, , ,

mv5bmtexmzu0odcxndheqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mde1oti4mzay-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_

If you didn’t see Arrival last weekend, see it this weekend, so we can talk. The movie, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, is ostensibly about first contact by extra-terrestrials, but there’s a Lot More going on than the main plot about world reaction to giant squids that communicate by mathematically complex coffee stains.

I could dance around the Lot More in a spoiler-resistant review, but I’d rather talk about the Lot More so see and, and come back in a  week or so.

Timeless is Living on Stolen Time

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

636117106847952748-nup-173207-10968

Back to the past to wreck the future!

Timeless is living on stolen time, and if you follow its altered timeline, there’s no version where it survives for a second season.

 

You’re a consultant who just sat through a meeting about a time travel TV project featuring criminals who steal a time machine and a team of soldiers, detectives and scientists who chase them in the working prototype. But you’re not quite satisfied with that, so you use your time machine – you’re consulting on this show for a reason – to go back in time and instill a love of history into one of the more senior producers.

You come back, and now it’s a different show, about saving history from criminals, and you’re the only one in that meeting who remembers that the historian character was originally a detective. Despite that little victory, you’re quiet and brooding through that whole meeting because you do not remember at all cutting the crew from five characters to three (OK , budgets are real things), making one of the characters black (noble impulse as long as it doesn’t slip into some terrible running gag) and long plot arc that no one in the meeting explains more than to note that it exists.

You come out of that meeting in a good mood anyway, because they still think they can sell it to the networks. But your furniture is different and you have a third dog you don’t remember, and you discover that you apparently own and use a set of golf clubs. Then you remember a comment in the meeting about how they wanted to be careful shopping this to Fox because of Firefly. On a hunch you look it up, and discover that Firefly, in this timeline, only had half a season, instead of three good seasons with Nathan Fillion and a terrible season without him.

You may be the only one in the universe who remembers season 2 of Firefly.

You’ve McFlied yourself, which is the most nonsensical, hand-waviest time travel trope you can inflict upon a story, and it guarantees that you can never, ever, really take your journey through time seriously.

NBC’s Timeless is, in fact a show about one team of time travelers using their time machine to attempt to thwart criminals (apparently) from altering history with the other time machine. While I made up all the details of the production decision making, the actual show does feature Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston, a distinguished historian drafted into this project, and shoved into a time machine with a special ops soldier named Wyatt Logan (seriously, and he’s played by Matt Lanter) and a scientist/engineer/pilot Rufus Carlin (played by Malcolm Barrett) who is inconveniently African American.

“I’m black, “ Rufus says in the pilot, “There is literally no part of American history that’s going to be awesome for me.”

So every week they go back in time to try and thwart the villains from altering history. They have some sense of where the main (stolen) time machine is going, and they know the hero/historian  deduces from that which event they might try and alter. (The Hindenberg and Lincoln’s assassination are easy; JFK sleeping around in Vegas, not so much).

Timeless

“Hi! We’re from the future, and we don’t know what we’re doing here.” Lanter, Spencer and Barrett, front to back with Visnjic in the photo.

But they don’t save history. They sort of prevent catastrophe, but history still gets changed. Consequently, Preston comes home to a family situation she does not remember – like her mother still being alive, but her sister not existing at all, or the fiance she remembers nothing about.

And we’re done. I mean, sure, you can squeeze some surreal drama out of this, but we are done taking you seriously as time travel.

Because what happened to the Lucy Preston that the basically unnamed fiance is supposedly marrying? Is she in some other, alternate timeline wondering what the hell happened to her fiance?  That might be an interesting question to explore – but I don’t think that’s the direction this is going.

The Villains (headed by  Goran Visnjic as the enigmatic Garcia Flynn) have a Plan, but they have yet to reveal enough of it to give us any stakes.

IF it is about specifically altering the timeline of Lucy Preston – as they may have hinted at – that could become awesome, even though it would be a very high-difficulty dive. However, they seem to be putting together a nuke, and that’s more generic super-villain scheming like network execs would sign off of in a meeting you don’t remember.

In fact, executive producer Eric Kripke told USA Today,  “What we’re really trying to avoid is that kind of screw-with-your-head trope where there’s three different versions of you from different periods of time and you’re all talking to each other and no one can keep the timelines straight.”

So they’re building a bomb, and the opening scenes and the closing scene of every will be Preston trying to figure out what has happened to her personal life now, and how she’ll cope -no! Gotta get back into the time machine.

Back to the Future got away with this sort of crap because no one was taking any of this seriously. Timeless, in contrast, proceeds with prime time dramatic earnest, except for occasional jokes at the expense of our historic racism, like when Rufus notes that a black man in a waiter uniform can wander around a 1960’s Vegas casino without attracting attention. “I’m invisible here,” Rufus says, “It’s like my superpower.”

2c53425167ba743c97feb1fb22de99b1

Don’t be fooled – he’s not taking this seriously at all.

Three other shows on TV walk this same path to varying degrees of success, Frequency most explicitly. Except Frequency is overall better written and acted (well, it is), the stakes are deliberately framed within the protagonist’s Daddy Issues, and there is no pretense at science – the time travel gag is a ham radio  that has been struck by lightning. Also, when the protagonist changes the past, she remembers the new past, and remembers her alternate past like a weird dream. Except when she doesn’t. That’s another day.

The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow also turn on irresponsible time travel, but those are CW/DC shows, and there is an actual internal logic to all of that. Again, some other day.

The grandfather paradox is a real thing. If you go back in time and change your future, you have obliterated the future you originally came from, so it in a real sense never really existed. So how could you have changed the past? (This is not our first time with this subject].

“Who cares?” sneered the execs in the meeting you don’t remember. “If anyone took that crap seriously, Firefly would have been a hit.” And you remember that for one stupid mistake in the timeline, it was!

Continuity and character development go together, and are crucial to an ongoing series. And here Timeless is waving their hands and saying don’t worry about that – just take us seriously anyway.

At this pace, logically, the intrepid crew will come back to an empty warehouse, having accidentally created a timeline where their time machine does not get invented. That’s not the sort of logic that runs this show, though. But you remember writing a treatment for just that episode, in case the series got abruptly cancelled. You are sitting at your screen trying to remember how it went.

Because that future is directly foreseeable from incompetent network execs meddling with history.

 

 

A case for even stranger aliens

Tags

, , ,

My personal mandate for extra-terrestrial folk in any of my fiction is that it should be possible to play this part live action using a human in make-up.

Phillip Ball, who wrote and narrates the video below agrees, though I think he overstates the problem within science fiction. You can’t go by what makes the screen. Movie and TV sci-fi have two constraints: budget, and broad-as-possible appeal, both of which skew towards humans in prosthetics. In literary SF, good examples of extremely weird aliens are far more common. Not the rule, sadly, but far more common.

Anyway: