Archive for August, 2012

An open letter to future time travellers

August 26, 2012 2 comments

Dear hopeful time travellers,

Have you thought about disease?

Do you know how many bacteria are crawling across your beloved time machine right now? Billions. Do you know how many bacteria they can make in one hour? Let’s say once per hour, I’ve seen things about them being every 10mins, but those are particularly quickly dividing bacteria in optimum conditions. You know how many people in ancient Rome have immunity to diseases that arose AFTER the Western Roman Empire collapsed? None, so how many will die from the ensuing epidemic that occurs after you shake hands with Julius Caesar? Millions! 

Of course, time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but these are serious concerns if time travel were ever possible. If a capsule which transmitted people (or any living matter for that… matter) through time (more rapidly than conventional time travel of forwards at 1sps), then there becomes a very real danger off cross contamination. Disease transfer from direct contact with people could not only transfer disease to populations from the time travellers, but it can happen in reverse.

What if someone came into contact with smallpox (Which killed approximately 300-500 MILLION people in the 20th century, imagine the United States being emptied of all people, that’s the lower band for that estimate) and brought it back. This scenario isn’t entirely ridiculous if you leave out the assumption of impossibility of time travel (Which as I’m writing this letter to time travellers, you wouldn’t assume anyway). No one is vaccinated* against smallpox today, because the only samples left are with World Health Organisation laboratories in the United States and Russia. Millions would die before we could get the epidemic under control and it would take several more decades before we would be able to exterminate it.

So, future time travellers, sterilise your hulls, clean yourselves, before and after every jump or you may just kill us all.

This problem does not exist only for travelling through time. This is an issue addressed for missions of exploration to other bodies in space.


There is an issue that has been raised many times regarding time travel, that is, the earth is not a stationary object, hell, the solar system nor the galaxy is. The universe itself is in a state of expansion. Often, people will write about the problems of time travel as if the time machine would become a truly immovable rod and so would fly off into interplanetary space.

This view of time machines often omits the fact that the sun is orbiting the centre of the galaxy and so it would fly off into interstellar space if it were truly immovable and of course, the galaxy is moving relative to other galaxies and so the time machine would be lost to intergalactic void in a few thousand years.

But of course, this doesn’t make sense, why? Because movement is always relative to something else (Re: Einstein) and the time machine will have inertia acting upon it still (assuming it doesn’t just break current understanding of physics beyond being able to move in either direction along the time dimension (assuming time is a dimension)). So it depends on how the time machine works as to what happens, so if you do make a time machine, don’t make it work like an immovable rod. There may be some problems if tha- *CLANG*

Ageing in time

Suppose you are a time traveller and you are thirty years old and go back in time 20 years. How old are you? Well the one that did the travelling is still 30 (Assuming instantaneous travel) but there is also one which is 10 but is *you*. How do you count years when time travelling? Any time traveller must keep track of their own time scale or they risk losing themselves to time. Try this:

Hop into your time machine and go to a week ago and spend the week doing something, then go back in time a week and spend the week doing something, then go to the point in space and time where you left for your first week long trip. You are now two weeks older than you would have been but you have not missed any time in the universal scale, that is, you’ve had two weeks *more* time than everyone else.

But then who cares if you’re 20 or 21, or even 25 or 35 for that matter? It’s not like your health and well-being requires differential treatment of people of differing ages- wait, shit.

I went to the shops tomorrow.

This sentence makes no sense really, how can you have gone to a place before the time you say you did it? With time travel, that’s easy! You go forward in time 24hrs, go to the shops, then go back in time 24hrs and go home. You technically have been to the shops and it did happen tomorrow. This creates a very difficult problem for grammar specifically, how to use tense for time travel. You could always use your personal time frame for when events occur, but how do you say that it happened tomorrow? That still seems nonsensical. Alternatively, you could always use the universal time frame and say:

“I’m going to the shops tomorrow.”

But then that doesn’t differentiate between what you will do and what you have done in the future. I think that in order to talk about time travel, we need some ground rules for tenses. I would come up with them myself but I don’t think that rules made up by some nerd on the internet are likely to be useful to the majority of time travellers (It’s likely that time travellers make up exactly 0% of my readership) so I’ll leave it up to the time travellers to develop words themselves and grammar will evolve as it naturally does.

Finally, I’m sure people who aren’t time travellers are reading this and thinking “Where’s all the physics stuff about how to travel through time?!” Well, unfortunately, I’m not a physicist and so I thought I’d write about some of the more “mundane” problems of time travel and only hint at the others. If you want to learn about time travel and physics click here.

*Note on Vaccination: Anyone who argues against vaccination should read up on how we got rid of smallpox and also try to think to themselves what each of these diseases does and what it looks like if someone is infected:

  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Rubella
  • Tuberculosis
  • Smallpox
  • Diphtheria
  • Polio
  • Whooping cough
  • Cholera
  • Typhoid
  • Hepatitis.

Also, try to understand this as clearly as possible, CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION. Google that shit, seriously, vaccinations are one of the greatest things science has done for humanity. The technology to prevent diseases like those listed above has done more for us than anything, ever. Take a look at the probabilities of a human child to survive to adulthood from 1910 and 2010, take a look at probabilities of a baby elephant surviving to adulthood in the same time periods. You’ll see a baby elephant had a BETTER chance to make it to adulthood than a child in 1910.


The Façade of Progress: A Personal Perspective

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Okay, so it’s ~13hrs late, sue me.

Bacteria –> Fish –> Amphibian –> Lizard –> Rat –> Monkey –> Human

As common a motif as any for evolution, this ladder (not the exact ordering or the creatures named but the concept at least) dates back to Ancient Greece (or at least so Wikipedia tells me :p *slaps wrist*). The idea basically being that animals are organised in a scale (The name for this ladder of life in latin was: Scala Naturae) from the least complex (bacteria) to the most and of course humans sit atop all because most complex life is best life.

But this view of life is terribly stunted in it’s vision, take for example these things, just take a look at the pictures and tell me, what is it? It’s actually a chordate, just like you and I, just like snakes, frogs, sharks, goldfish et.c., it’s a highly specialised version of one though and it’s like a barnacle in that it gives up the pelagic (Open sea) life to live attached to a rock and filtering out their food from the water around them.

These animals are perfectly suited to their environment, you are suited to yours, despite your supposedly ‘more’ evolved complex form, you could not possibly hope to survive doing what the barnacle or sea squirt does; neither, importantly, could their ancestors, the ancestor of the barnacle is also the ancestor of shrimp, crabs and lobsters so it’s best to think of a generic (pun intended (nested brackets for those who don’t get it, look up taxonomy and think about specific and general as words)) sort of crustacean. Despite the barnacle and sea squirt each losing features and simplifying down to a seemingly more basal form, they are in fact more evolved than their ancestors and far better adapted to their environments than their more complex cousins.

This concept is a general fallacy built into our minds or at least ingrained at a young age, I know of a time when I saw progress as the way things must be. When I was a child I was always told to ‘cheer up’ and to ‘smile more’ that ‘things will get better’. Despite there being nothing wrong really, I got bullied a little, but I think it’s just how things are at school. Most people are bullied. I should say that doesn’t mean that bullying is justifiable, what I mean is that my bullying was slight and no more than I would expect of being smarter than literally everyone at your school; I was before I moved to a different area where I was much closer to the mean and when I was bullied there, well I was the new kid and everyone had known each other since they could remember, I was an outsider and a weird one at that.

I took this general theme and applied it to evolution myself in my GCSE Graphics project where I re-designed monopoly into a game of evolution, though, really it was a Scala Naturae game and it didn’t really make evolution work how it was supposed to, a bit like another game I know about.

ANYWAY, putting my past where it belongs, the point I’m trying to make is that I was told that things would get better and that matched up with a general trend where we think that things are improving and getting better, I think this is a trend which began back in the ’60s with world wars and depression receding into the distance, science improving and young and exciting new culture being developed, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and it seemed things were going to be getting better, follow this up with the ’90s and ’00s of my own life and we’ve seen the internet take off, we’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, these events have given us a sort of ‘things can only get better’ view, one popularised by Brian Cox no less.

This view seems to make the assumption that what must be true of science must be true for the history of things science has discovered, that since science has increased knowledge, improved technology, therefore, stuff should be getting better throughout the world. But just because we have managed to improve our human lives does not mean that on the geologic time scale, things must conform to the same rule.

Combine this with the radiation of groups of organisms as they diversified through time and it gives you a sense that most things around today showed up a long time ago and that was it, they never changed. Hence the old anti-evolutionist cry of “Well if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?!” of course there’s more to it than that but putting on a sense of progress from when we evolved through to today gives credence to that old battlecry, if they were to understand that monkeys didn’t STOP evolving when the ape branch split off from them they’d be able to understand why monkeys are a far more successful branch than apes are (Compare number of species between Cercopithecoidea and the Hominidae, it’s clear which is the healthier bush*.

Finally, I’d like to say HEY look at me, I managed to get another post done in a consecutive week (sort of), let’s hope I manage to get a third one, and a fourth and so on until my posts number as many as the intermediate fossils between me and my most distant ancestor.

* Note: The Cercopithecoidea only include the Old World Monkeys of Asia, Africa and Europe, not the New World Monkeys so by that measure, Hominidae are even worse. (Taxonomists read on: I know, the New World Monkeys and Old World Monkeys as a group excluding the Great Apes is a paraphyletic group but shush, baby steps for people who don’t know as much as you, that is, people like me)


This essay was inspired by my recent reading of Stephen J. Gould’s book Eight Little Piggies along with some other books of his that I’ve read, I’m probably just repeating what he’s said in a less eloquent voice but hey, I think I’m getting better? No, okay then.

On the difficulties of translation.

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Apologies for my absence, it’s been a rough few weeks.

This week I am going to talk about how my learning Powershell (a Text-Based User Interface or TUI rather than the Graphical User Interface or GUI that we are all familiar with today) permits me to understand better how we translate every day and what it is we translate. This is the true nature of languages and communication at it’s most basic level. Well, really it’s me trying to be scientific and philosophical so prepare for some half-baked ideas from a newly graduated idiot.

To begin with, these words are symbols that represent concepts, or rather, more literally sounds which represent concepts that anyone who knows the ‘code’ can translate and can therefore understand the meaning of this heavily convoluted sentence. To you Grammar Nazis, I know that my writing is terrible, but hey, I’m learning, be gentle, communication isn’t my strongest point.

So even when one is speaking the same language, it’s possible for confusion ‘in translation’ because the concept has to be translated a few times: From thought to vocals, to detected sounds, to thought. A thought occurs (Ahaha), a brilliant demonstration can be shown in this xkcd comic, confusion reigns through translation.

Now that we understand a little about translating intent into languages, we may look at the intent in use of Powershell, and the language used. For example, to delete a file using Powershell, you don’t say ‘delete filename’, instead you say:

‘rm filename.txt’

‘rm’ stands for remove which is the word that the programmers of Powershell decided was the way they would define deleting. Understanding the correct syntax is also important, suppose for instance that you had to state which file you wanted to remove first, it is entirely conceivable that the programmers could’ve decided that you had to state which file you wanted to do anything with before you tell Powershell what you wanted to do with it, in which case the correct syntax could entirely be:

‘filename.txt rm’

Or they could have also decided that ‘del’ was clearer as del is short for delete and so it is more intuitive to do that and so:

‘filename.txt del’

Would be the correct syntax. Understanding what language you are speaking is important to know how to say anything, this is important for different human languages too, I’m afraid the only other language I know a bit about is the dead language of Latin but it is a good example, in order to state:

‘Adam eats the apple’

You say that

‘Adam the apple eats’

So if you were to try the first one in Latin it would sound like complete gibberish. It’s interesting to reflect on the origination of syntax, who decided these laws of noun and verb order for these different but certainly related languages. Speaking of foreign languages (At least foreign to where I’m writing this blog…) there is an important point on perception which is demonstrated by a Belgian artist, René Magritte, jokingly referenced by another webcomic Calamities of Nature (Calamities, you will be missed). The original is of course:

The Treachery of Images taken from Joshua Katcher’s Blog without permission, but I cite his post so I think it’s ok. Josh if you read this: I doubt you’re petty enough to demand more since you don’t own the image but thanks, yours was the first image that showed up on GoogleImages so props to you.

This artwork makes the point that an image of something is only a representation of it. Perfectly obvious really, but important to note. The point is pertinent, in my opinion, to what I have to say on translation; that when you state something, repeating our earlier example:

‘Adam eats the apple’

When you state this simple sentence, you don’t state what is happening, rather you state an impression of what is occurring. This adds a layer of potential confusion since this impression can be misinterpreted, for example, it doesn’t say what state the apple is in, if the apple was chopped or whole (I’m sure you can picture two very different scenarios when I give this additional information to supplement the statement.

I suppose this blog post really is about being careful about what you say and how you say it because a different interpreter could translate it incorrectly, or rather in a different way to you, as with the computer example about removing (i.e. deleting) files using Powershell.


Learn Powershell or your computer’s alternative.

Joshua Katcher’s Blog post which I took the image (Heheh) of the Treachery of Images from.