Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quantum Mechanics and Time Travel

I have issues with how many time travel stories hand wave away a lot of science. My first objection was about how momentum was dealt with (or rather, not dealt with) in these stories. Now I'd like to focus on what Quantum Mechanics says about changes to the universe when time travel is present.

Often in time travel stories the author will try to get around the possibility of a paradox by claiming that the characters are only allowed to remain in the past so long as they don't change anything. Stories where the timestream would just spit out anyone that made a change in human history are an example in a seemingly never ending line of examples of humanity's hubris. Why on earth would the universe care whether humans noticed a change? The only things that the universe can be said to care about are the fundamental laws that it follows. And one of these laws appears to demand that if time travel is possible, the universe must be changed by it every time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Lack of Science in Time Travel Fiction

I am a sucker for time travel stories. I love thinking about ways in which the past could be altered and considering ways in which that might be better or worse.

For example, if Hitler had not risen to power and started World War II, would we have had the civil rights movement in the 60s? Did it take the extremely negative example of the holocaust to convince a new generation growing up in the 50s that racism and prejudice of any kind are abhorrent? And what about surviving the nuclear arms race? Without Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would mutually assured destruction have worked as a strategy to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war? Would the human race have survived a period of nuclear proliferation without a negative example to draw on?

It is reminiscent of Leibniz's "Best of all possible worlds". I am not referring to the mockery that Voltaire made of that phrase in Candide when he suggested that the phrase meant there was no unhappiness in the world. I mean it as Leibniz meant it, that for all the unhappiness in the world, things would be even worse if we did not go through that unhappiness.

To me, that gives us two great types of time travel stories that I seem to see far too few of: ones where people try to change the world for the better only to have it get much worse, and those where people change the world for the worse knowing that the overall effect will be better.

But for all these time travel stories that I love, I find that there are few that I can call Science Fiction despite the fact that there are at least some reasons in science to think that time travel of some sort may be possible. I am not a physicist and if anybody is reading this and wishes to correct me on any of these points then feel free. I think that they are all rudimentary enough to pass muster, though, and it surprises me that no one ever seems to deal with them in any time travel stories that I have read.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Cure for Binary Worldviews

Some people reading my post on the limitations imposed on our thinking by the bimodal nature of our view of truth may have found themselves frustrated by it. "Something is either true or it is not. That is undeniable", they may have said. Well, I deny it. So does a significant portion of the population of the world.

Let me give you a simple example to expand your view of the problem. The checkout time of a particular bed and breakfast is 11:00AM. True or false: you will be charged for an extra day if you leave after 11:00AM.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Binary Truth In Western Culture

A recent TED talk mentions that one of the great things that happened during the enlightenment was that we shook off much of the legacy from the ancient Greeks that was stifling our ability to think for ourselves. Since they were wrong about a lot of things, treating their pronouncements as eternal wisdom held us back from making progress in our understanding of the world. But there is one area of thought where ancient thinking has become so insidious that we are not even aware of its influence. It is an area where we think we are being more rational in our thinking whereas in fact we are straying further from reality. I am talking about true/false logic and how it affects our worldview.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Invented Google

One reason people have given me for resisting the free sharing of their ideas has to due with regret. It seems to be an almost universal experience to feel resentment when you have an idea and then later see someone take the same idea and make a lot of money or get a lot of credit from it. In most cases you know that the idea was developed completely independently and that the person who succeeded did so solely on their own merit, but if you've broadcast the idea beforehand then the thought that you might have given them your idea and then seen them succeed with it seems too much to bear. For this reason, people still want to hoard their ideas.

I thought I'd share an example from my own life of giving away an idea that ended up being the foundation for a hugely successful company. I hope it may help give a sense of perspective on this.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Who Owns a Copyrighted Work?

In honour of European Public Domain Day (North America won't get a Public Domain Day until 2019) I thought I'd post some thoughts on copyright.

First, a disclaimer. For my whole career I have made a living from copyright. As a software developer, I rely on the existence of copyright to make the work I do worth being paid a salary. Some might think my opinions would be biased by that. But I have a second disclaimer. I am a consumer of copyrighted works. As a consumer, I recognize the value in keeping copyright limited. What I would like to see is a copyright law where there is a balance between the rights of the copyright holder and the rights of the consumer.

With that out of the way, I would like to ask all of you to think about a question. Before you go on reading, see if you can figure out who owns a copyrighted work. If you think the answer is obvious, I will point out that it is a trick question. You might want to look at the question again and make sure you fully understand what it is asking.