Time Travel- A History can be considered Canon


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It is a hard thing to write non-fiction about time travel and be taken seriously. And by tackling this subject, James Gleik has given a gift to those of us who obsess over this weird, newish corner of the collective imagination. He has given us Canon, nearly scripture, and a lucid one at that.

Yes, the Time Travel, A History  is that good, not only as lucid non-fiction about science (if which there is always a shortage) but a serious book about time travel itself, which is a rare treasure indeed.


The author stares at a camera and summarizes his premise within a video at Big Think:

“Before the late Victorian era, it was practically impossible to for people to conceive of time travel. And I say it was impossible because they didn’t.”

The problem with time travel as a subject for non-fiction is that it is both new and terribly, mind-meltingly strange. Real scientists can’t touch it, except to briefly dismiss it as fantasy on their way to talk about “serious cosmology”. [We should not here that they are Not Wrong]. Speculating at length about the How of time travel is a fast-track to the crank file, where no grant ever flows.

Consequently, time travel non-fiction has been relegated to a sidebar in a book about time (or worse, a history of time from sundials to the atomic clock, a book that has many forms, all just as interesting), or encyclopedic endeavors by Geeks to list and categorize time travel fiction (which includes this blog).

Gleik has written a history of time travel as a concept, a trope, and specific thing we think and imagine about, and has done so with the same readable, cogent, accessible prose that put most of his other work on short lists for the Pulitzer prize.

I exaggerate not; behold his bio.

And he has done so with fewer Doctor Who references than you might think.

Long before the BBC back-benchers slapped together a children’s TV show that got way out of hand, HG Wells wrote the first time travel fiction (of any size or consequence) where the protagonist physically moves through time on purpose.

[ I prefer the 1960 version to any other adaptation, even thought this trailer, product of its time, lays it on thick.]

The success of that work became the embryo for what would become the “scientific novel, and soon after science fiction. The time travel trope would then be expanded upon by Hugo Gernsback (mostly as an editor, but he is the one who first described the “grandfather paradox.”) and later Asimov and Heinlein (whose contributions, Gleik fairly notes, reek of their time and their intended audience) and then a cascading expansion of other authors as science fiction became something adults could read in open daylight.


H.G. Wells staring at you from the past.

Wells did it first, and Gleik argues that is because he was the right writer at the right time. By the mid-19th century, humanity, for the first time, was seeing the world change substantially within their lifetime, and thereby developed a desire, and in fact a need for thinking about the future in a more serious way.

Previous fantasies about people moving into the future, whether by prolonged sleep of wandering amiss inside a fairy mound, would have them emerge to discover only the names had changed.

Looking the opposite direction, the 19th century saw some of the first serious efforts at scientific history, because we had better tools to investigate with. This brought about a new question: “what can we learn from the past to help us better predict the future?”  Previously, those sort of inquiries had been limited to politics – and even then, people rarely listened to the answers.

While Gleik touches on time as the physical force that physicists argue about (you can make a serious case that time does not exist) he spends a good deal of the book examining how we think about time, and how that has evolved. And yes, he also references that one scene from Doctor Who.
In between  Wells expounding on the fourth dimension to Moffat’s madman in a box waving it off as Timey Wimey we now have some sober non-fiction to reference.  Now granted, I am his target audience, but if you are the sort that reads down this far in an amateur blog about time travel, you definitely need to get this book.

It is now Canon.


Fermi’s Paradox Has No Good Answers


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If the universe is so full of life, meaning billions of planets with billions of life forms each, which seems statistically probable, then why haven’t we made contact with any of our interstellar neighbors?

The answer you make up will deeply inform your fictional future. The answer we have yet to discover casts a dark shadow across our actual future.


“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke

There are three questions you have to answer to satisfaction in order to work out the future:

  1.       What is the answer to Fermi’s paradox?
  2.       How do we resolve the inevitable Robot Uprising?
  3.       Is it possible to go Faster than Light.

This is about question #1.

Fermi’s paradox is not a formal theorem, and despite “common knowledge”  has never been proven or disproven. It is a question to which we have no answer. Like Why do people still watch Gotham?

It does not spring from any formal scientific paper. Like Murphy’s Law, is is basically folklore. Enrico Fermi and a few colleagues were at lunch. Fermi has the New Yorker open to a cartoon about aliens [the one below – I think]  and he wondered out loud “Where are they?”



This began a long conversation the wandered into speculative mathematical probabilities (The Big Bang Theory stereotypes are based on real people) about the likelihood of aliens, and even before Hubble, the gang concluded that there should or at least could be other alien civilizations, so why haven’t we met any?

[Scientific American has the names and dates if you care]

The farther we creep out into space, both physically and electronically, the more puzzling this becomes.


The answers basically fall into three groups:

  1. Space and time are really vast and we haven’t been looking that far for that long.
  2. Aliens are too weird or too advanced for us to communicate with.
  3. We are alone.

Most people who think and write about this lump group 1&2, dividing the answers into They exist/ They do not exist sub-groups. However, the facts behind the vastness of space vs the puniness of our efforts do not eliminate either possibility.

The Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has only been going on in a serious way since the 1970’s and even then inconsistently funded (it hasn’t seen federal money since 1986). This gives us a less than 50 light year search range, within which we have been selective due to constraints on resources. Pick any star you see in the night sky. Chances are, we haven’t seriously listened to it.


From this article.

At that pace, the answer could remain forever a mystery until flying saucers actually land on our yards.

Let’s dispense quickly with the possible answers that make no sense:

If aliens are already among us, we’d know. The government isn’t that smart of over that long of time. We are not in a damn zoo. There are a host of crackpot websites that go to great length to claim the opposite, and this is not one of them.

If they visited in the prehistoric past, looked around, saw nothing of concern and left, we would never know, so that answer is basically useless – even if true.

In the other category, intelligent life cannot be rare, much less singular across the heavens. Hell, it isn’t even that rare on Earth. Dolphins use language. Octopi use tools. Ravens and apes use both. And that’s one snapshot of four distinct ecosystems across about a billion years of complex lifeforms, any one of which could have created some intelligent species which we have not uncovered.  We’ll come back to this.

If you want a complete rundown of all the possible answers, I refer you to my sources. There are several good summaries, and I don’t mean to repeat them.


For my relatively optimistic space opera fiction I chose Nobody Listens to Radio But Us. More advanced aliens have developed some sort of quantum communication that works instantaneously across distance, and they no longer modulate anything i the EM spectrum because that takes too long. Radio is the galactic equivalent of smoke signals.

We encounter them physically before we ever make remote contact.

(How does the quantum communicator work? You handwave over the unobtanium.)

Several other answers can be made to work just as readily. If you are making up a future history, this is a required chore. Unless you decide there are no aliens, which can fit the facts, but presents an existential darkness problem.


If you read the sources they talk about the Filter, the as-yet-undetermined factor that prevents an explosion of space-faring civilizations. There are two versions: we are one of the rare species to pass it OR we have yet to hit it.

It may be that while life is common, complex life is rare, and us having spines and fingers and the like make us buy far the exception among the stars, and this is why we are lonely. That still fits within known facts, but I don’t buy it.

The human experience has been this: We think we’re unique. We look around to prove we are unique. We find out we are not special. We move the line until we feel special again.

I was told in grade school we are the only species with language and tools. You Tube can tell you differently in one or two search terms. And this requires no space-based observations, just perspective adjustment.


The answer that I am afraid is not fiction is that this barrier is real, and we are upon it. Earth is beginning a Sixth Great Extinction, and the variable is us, and our super-special technology.

Between global warming, the plastic layer, and just our callous regard for sustainability, we have shit in our own nest and set it on fire. You can shake your fist in denial, and I’m going to point to the rest of the world and say “scoreboard”.

It may be that highly-advanced technological civilizations kill ecosystems; that by the time you can scoot out into space, you have already doomed yourselves.

Time and space are vast, our efforts to find the neighbors are feeble, perhaps futile, leaving the answer to Fermi’s lunchtime distraction a long way off. I rather hope we will be around long enough as a species to discover it.

But that’s only a hope.



SETI doc


A lot of folks have given this thought. The first thing they note is that the Fermi Paradox is a remarkably strong argument. You can quibble about the speed of alien spacecraft, and whether they can move at 1 percent of the speed of light or 10 percent of the speed of light. It doesn’t matter. You can argue about how long it would take for a new star colony to spawn colonies of its own. It still doesn’t matter. Any halfway reasonable assumption about how fast colonization could take place still ends up with time scales that are profoundly shorter than the age of the Galaxy. It’s like having a heated discussion about whether Spanish ships of the 16th century could heave along at two knots or twenty. Either way they could speedily colonize the Americas


One possible explanation is that interstellar travel is just too costly. Consider how expensive it would be for us to populate another star system. Imagine sending a small rocket to Alpha Centauri, one that’s the size of the Mayflower (180 tons, with 102 pilgrims on board). Your intention is to get this modest interstellar ark to our nearest stellar neighbor in 50 years, which requires about 150 billion billion joules of energy.

Wait But Why lays it all out with lots of pictures.


Scientific American disbelieves.


University of Oregon takes a deeper dive.


Space.com – good listicle


Sixth Mass Extinction


Eulogy for The Master


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We live in the dystopian universe where Alan Rickman did not get a chance to play The Master in a major motion picture version of Dr Who. This is but one of many, perhaps countless injustices done to one of the Doctor’s best villains, from his first appearance to his supposed demise at the most recent series finale.

Spoilers of course. This is time travel, after all, and the end might meet the beginning right in the middle.


Most villains believe that they are actually the hero at least in their own story. The Master is too smart for that. He knows he’s the villain. That’s the only reason he exists, and the fact that he knows this only makes his arc more tragic.



From the Master’s first appearance (played by Robert Delgado) way back in the Pertwee era, he was conceived to be everything the Doctor was, except evil.  And polite – the Master, in his first (and last) incarnation observed all the social protocols that the Doctor, even the relatively civil 3rd, frequently ignored.

The Doctor through a dark and slightly warped mirror, and this made him the perfect villain. Too perfect, maybe. Because our poor Master, even from the first, seemed to have no other driving motive other than to be a nemesis to his counterpart renegade Timelord.

The Daleks commit terrible crimes for a purpose. They care about winning. When well written, they are not likely to beat themselves.

The Master, in contrast, is prone to self sabotage, particularly to plots so insane they could not possibly succeed even without the Doctor’s opposition. His potential to succeed, though, inevitably forces the Doctor to play his mad game, and that is the true objective.

There are exceptions, of course. This is Doctor Who – there will always be exceptions.  Before we get to that, some brief biography may be in order. For brevity and sanity, we are holding to televised material. Audio plays and novels have made extensive and often contradictory use of the character, and we have enough nonsense with just the TV show. More complete biographies can be found in Sources.

We first meet the Master {Delgado}  in Terror of the Autons, where, by the end of the serial, he abandons his own mad scheme and throws in with the Doctor to oppose the scheme of his former ally the Nestene Consciousness. This would establish the pattern, not only of plotting, but of a relatively sane Master.

That’s right, middle-aged actors sword fighting slowly was considered fine children’s programming in the 1970’s. Now, of you want to see that, you have to watch HBO.

The Master would appear in every episode of that season, and in at least a couple of episodes in every season thereafter.

We learn later that this Master is the 12th incarnation. While clearly a sociopath, he is not the homicidal maniac other incarnations will become. He does not chew the scenery with his evil. He kills people because they are in the way, but he does not (usually) go out of his way to kill people. That would be inefficient and undignified. And then he died.

They had been writing the episode that killed off the Master when the actor himself was killed in a car crash.

And then the Master came back.

The Fourth Doctor faced a badly mangled, half dead master for a couple of adventures, until through convoluted events, a “regenerated” Master (Anthony Ainley) took shape. This Master 12.5 would be the form until the end of the original series.


Ainley had a reputation for chewing scenery long before he wore the Master’s black suits, and no one in Doctor Who would discourage that. This, and a series of poor plots, left this Master little regarded, a manic caricature of his former self, despite a relatively restrained performance in Survival – the last serial of the Old Who – which ended in his capture.


Oh, yes, Doctor, it gets much , much worse. BWAHAHAHAHA!

Eric Roberts as Master 12.7 in the TV Movie was the worst part in a movie with a lot of bad parts. We cheered when he fell into the Eye of Harmony because it got Roberts and his horrific costume off the damn screen.


This is actually my favorite Master. 

Somewhere off screen, during the Time Wars, the Master was given twelve new regenerations. Master 13 (we think) (Derek Jacobi) appeared for half an episode before becoming Master 14 (Sims) who became the batshit crazy nemesis of the 10th Doctor.


“What do you mean there’s no more scenery to chew?!

Some of Ten’s best story arcs involved his renewed nemesis, including a long story arc where the Master’s plan worked, and he became the dog who caught the bus. He didn’t kill the Doctor, of course, but shrunk him and kept him around in a bird cage. Then he kept escalating until finally his own started to turn on him. Because the dog has no idea what to do with the bus – he just feels compelled to chase it.

This Master is young and hip, like the Doctor he torments, but where the 10th Doctor is shackled by regret, this Master is unfettered and unhinged.

While we’re here, let me spout some head-canon: the “sound of drums” is, in my mind, peculiar to the newly regenerated doctor, and the 12th Master of the older series, including his insane zombie antecedents do not hear any such thing. Yes – he said he heard it since childhood – but the memories of sane people are unreliable, much less this guy.

The 11th Doctor managed to wander around for a thousand years or so without encountering his perfect villain. I don’t know why.


A fresh face on a very old joke.

The 12th (who is really the 13th, because reasons) encountered Missy, presumably Master 15.  Missy has been the main villain in two of his four season-long arcs, and appeared outside of those arcs as well. This Master, like the Doctor she torments, is relatively mature, a grown up who might know what to do with the bus, but knows better than to actually catch it. Much closer to the 12th Master.

If you haven’t seen the most recent season finale, go watch it. We’ll wait.

The 13th Master believes his purpose is to destroy the Doctor, but the 14th knows better. The Master cannot be the hero of her own story. She’s too perfect as the villain.

There can be a Doctor without a Master, but there cannot be a Master without a Doctor – at least, not the way the show treats this character. That half-existence, I propose, is the underlying source of all his/her/its madness.

Image credits: the BBC – or sites that lifted them from the BBC.



You tube history of the Master:


Robots vs Your Crappy Job


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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.


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.




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.



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.




[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.



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.]


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.



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.



Making stuff up about TRAPPIST-1 and the Seven Dwarves


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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!


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.


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.


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.







[photo source]


[image source]


Nature (summary)


Similar situation with a gas giant in hab zone:



The time to talk about Arrival has arrived


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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.







Linguistic Relativity


Worth reading for depth


IMDB on Ted Chiang


Your Impossible Pasts


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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.


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.


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.


“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.


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..


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.


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