Wednesday, January 25, 2012

. . . Time

"Both young children and old people have a lot of time on their hands. That's probably why they get along so well. " -- Jonathan Carroll

Among his many talents Jonathan Carroll is a novelist and author who is perhaps best known for his treatment of the subjects of magic, slipstream, and modern fantasy.  He knows a thing or two about the problem presented by time, though to some degree we all do, right?

No writer -- at least no freelancer -- complains about not having time with any seriousness to the complaint, because not having time means that they are working -- that they are earning...  And that is not a subject that freelance writers joke about.

I just wish that there was a way to obtain more time...  Or swap the free time that is available in the middle of Summer with the times in the Winter when there is not enough time.

Time Travel Happens . . 

The idea of time travel has been a staple for science fiction and fantasy writers since the genres were invented -- and maybe even before that.  

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is often the first story that comes to mind when the subject is raised, and it is a great story that arguably was created by a writer who was way before his time.  Then there is the classic novel Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson that was turned into a movie called Somewhere in Time (that starred Christopher Reeves) which was a good one.

My all time favorite time travel novels have to be Time and Again by Jack Finney, and Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, a story whose protagonist, an engineer named Daniel Boone Davis, has a pet cat who is also his best friend (named Petronius the Arbiter) who features rather prominantly in both the plot and the endearing quality of the story.  In fact it is fair to say that the observation by Heinlein's wife Ginny that prompted him to write the story was, more or less, about that cat.

I cannot read that book without getting near tears at Heinlein's description of the emotional crisis that the cat, Pete, is thrown into when the protagonist is placed in a position beyond Pete's ability to either rationalize or deal with -- which leaves him with only the option to cry.

Heinlein belongs in a very exclusive group of writers whose ability to cause you to think without realizing you are doing so, while they take contemporary issues and wrap them in the thin veil of the story that they are telling, is so powerful a gift that we should consider ourselves fortunate that these men and women chose to tell stories as writers rather than to enter the field of politics, where their natural talents would have easily permitted them to manipulate not just the system, but each and every one of us as individuals.

. . . Just Ask the Experts
As the plot to a novel time travel is an interesting concept, but the idea that it could actually be possible strikes most intelligent people as not simply unlikely, but when the notion is being presented by another (presumably) smart person, a primary tip-off that the person doing the talking is trying to sell you something.

That being the case it is not really all that surprising to me that there is a decided reluctance on the part of some of the smartest people in the world alive today to admit that they believe time travel is possible.  In fact it happens all the time.  Every day.  Right now.  Says who?

How about Dr. Stephen Hawking?

While he is reluctant to discuss the matter because, as he points out, invariably the listener will grasp at much of the hypothesis and apply it to elements of the notion that for personal reasons they want to believe, that sort of conversation rarely ends well or heads in the direction that was intended.  That is an irrational but predictable given...

So what do people like Hawking mean when they say that time travel is possible?

If you apply the very strictest sense of what is and is not observable phenomenon, every time you look at a star you are traveling in time, because what you are seeing is an event that is thousands -- and in some cases perhaps millions -- of years old.  That it is happening right now but originally occurred all that time ago certainly meets with the generally accepted definitions of time travel, right?

If you got into a space ship (whose technology we do not at present possess) and headed out into space at, say, twice the speed of light, and you traveled for a good long time, if you then stopped and you tuned your television receiver to the right frequency, you could watch the live broadcast of Elvis Presley appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Or you could perhaps tune your radio to the right frequency and listen as Adolf Hitler gave his opening address to the world while standing at the podium of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin...  That would qualify as time travel wouldn't it?  After all, they are both live broadcasts...

. . . Observers and Participants . . .

Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) hinted that time had many aspects, and that the passage of time and actual events were more relative to the observer rather than the participant, since the observer could see elements of a tableau that were concealed from the participant.  That is an over-simplification of what he actually said, the details of which include speed, the sun, the nature of the physics of time, and some very complicated mathematical formula I do not even pretend to understand because hey, I don't.

What I do understand is that there are things Einstein daydreamed about that are way out of reach for me even when I am focusing upon and concentrating upon an idea.  I am just saying...

One of the examples of how Einstein's daydreams often turn out to be realistic assessments of actual phenomenon is the International Space Station (commonly called the "ISS" by the smart people at NASA).  As part of my job as a newspaper columnist who writes about business and technology I have the occasion to learn things that most people do not.  For example when there was a problem with the ISS, I spent a few weeks learning about it as I followed the developments that, fortunately, turned out to be much ado about nothing.  

The disaster was not a disaster, nothing bad happened, and so there was really nothing to write about but -- and this I think of as the cool bit in all of this -- I walked away from the experience having been briefed by some of the smartest people in the world including NASA engineers whose business it is to operate and fix the ISS, and now know a lot about it.  Cool that.
For example I know that the COSPAR ID for the ISS is "1998-067A" -- and I know that a COSPAR ID is the International Designator -- also known as COSPAR designation -- which is the international naming convention that is used for satellites, the ISS being technically a satellite.  

Naming things is an important task, especially things that go up into space with the potential for coming back down to earth, since you have to fill out insurance forms when your roof is destroyed by an object falling out of the sky and insurance companies like it better when you can say "pieces from the object formerly known as 1998-067A re-entered the atmosphere and struck my roof,  destroying it," rather than "this big metallic thing that is I know not what came from I know not where and crushed my roof; and now I need you to fix it please, thank you!"

A working example -- in fact the very example that the NASA engineer used in explaining the convention to us at the briefing, is object "1990-037B," which translates to the Hubble Space Telescope.  That happened to be the 37th known successful launch world-wide in 1990, and you may be interested to know that actor and comedian Jack Black's mother is Dr. Judith Cohen-Black, is an engineer who worked extensively on the Hubble Space Telescope Project.  Isn't it a small world?

The official Radio Call Sign for the ISS is Alpha, and it has a maximum crew compliment of six people.  Its Operational Window is roughly the years 1998 to 2016 but it is possible according to the experts to extend that by affixing booster motors to the ISS changing its orbit to a higher one to correct the roughly 2km a month that it degrades (falls) which would have the effect of allowing it to stay up there longer.  Of course doing that would require dis-assembly of much of the external structure such as the solar power arrays and other stuff so it is not likely.  But they could do it if they wanted to...

The ISS has an approximated mass of around 450,000 kg (990,000 lb), a length of 72.8 m, and a width 108.5 m.  Its height c. 20 m (c. 66 ft), and its pressurised volume 837 m3 (29,600 cu ft), and it has an atmospheric pressure 101.3 kPa (29.91 inHg, 1 atm).  The most important fact for the purposes of this article is the fact that its average speed is  7,706.6 m/s (27,743.8 km/h, 17,239.2 mph) allows it to orbit the planet every 91 minutes.

This is important because it demonstrates another aspect of time travel Hawking talked about -- the fact that wristwatches worn by astronauts who spend time on the ISS lose time uniformly -- that is to say at the exact same and identical rate, which is proof that time for the people on the ISS passes slower than time on the surface of the planet, so you could say that the astronauts are traveling backwards in time every time they visit the ISS. 

I need to go now, I am out of time...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Badge Collections

Ordinarily I do not think of myself as slow to adopt new tech but in the case of Apple's iPhone I resisted moving onto that platform for a very long time for complicated reasons.  Last year I made the move to the iPhone out of necessity rather than independent choice -- one of my jobs required it.

Around that time had you asked me if I would be getting an iPad the answer would have been a very forceful and emphatic "Hell No!" but probably not for the reasons you might think...

In my mind the iPad -- like the iPhone -- represented a form of tech that I felt violated some of the unwritten rules by which I operate on a day-to-day basis.  Have you ever watched the TV show NCIS?  One of the primary characters and protagonists in that television show is a character named Gibbs -- and among his many quirks and notable elements are a set of numbered rules by which he -- and by the simple extension of group-think his team -- operates.

I too have a set of rules, and like Gibbs they are, for the most part, unwritten but also inflexible.  Rule #14 is "never combine essential tech with entertainment."

If you take a closer look at Rule #14 it translates to the simple -- and I feel eminently logical -- position that placing entertainment temptations on your primary communications device is simply asking for trouble.  

Just prior to making the switch to the iPhone my standard go-kit consisted of my Blackberry Smartphone, iPod (30GB Video Model), notebook computer, and various rotating kit like thumb drives, earbuds, and depending upon the story I was working on, other personal electronic devices.  When I travel I often used my iPod to listen to audio books (by way of, music (in the form of MP3's and songs from Apple's iTunes, games like Mahjong, and the occasional TV show saved to the device for later consumption when stuck on a train, plane, or automobile.  The point is that it was a designated entertainment device that had no other role among my kit.

After I made the transition to the iPhone the idea of carrying both an iPhone and an iPod made very little sense.  The iPhone replaced both my smartphone (Blackberry) and my iPod; this only made sense -- and immediately violates Rule #14.

When you spend battery time listening to music or audio books, playing games, or availing yourself of any of the myriad other entertainment opportunities that can be had on the iOS platform you are in essence using up potential talk time on the cellphone side of the device.  What happens when you need to make one or more calls and you have already burned through a major percentage of the available stored charge on the device?  Simple answer: you don't make many calls.
So the choice is either carry a second iOS device that is dedicated to entertainment, or you resist the call to entertainment on your iPhone because there is no middle ground.  Adding insult to injury the iPhone is engineered with an internal battery that is not accessible to the user -- so you cannot simply carry extra power in the form of fully charged replacement batteries that effectively extend its capability.   Oh, there are external battery packs that you can carry with you and that can be used to both power and recharge the internal battery on the iPhone, but these are both inconvenient and bulky to some extent, and require you to carry additional kit in the form of their charger and cable.

In simple terms that is not a win-win situation.

The solution to this dilemma is a simple one: resist the temptation to avail yourself of the easily accessed entertainment potential in the device.  Yeah... Right.

Last year about the time that I was making the switch to the iPhone, the 'net-based audio book service Audible dot Com rolled out its own dedicated iOS App that, in addition to making it very easy -- and dare I say convenient -- to access your library of books on the service, comes with a built-in recognition program in the form of a Badge Collection that celebrates your activities in entertainment on the service. 

I was doomed.

Even having voluntarily limited myself to the use of the entertainment side of the iPhone to carefully planned and restricted circumstances, and exercising  harsh self-imposed discipline, like the bell that has been rung or the genie that has escaped the bottle, the simple knowledge of the existence of the stats portion of the Audible iPhone App was sufficient to cause me to check those stats whenever I used the device to listen to a book.

At this very moment there is a book loaded onto my iPhone -- The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson -- when I find myself on the T or commuter rail, on a plane, or simply stuck as a passenger in a vehicle commuting, the temptation to check my "stats" on the app is simply too powerful to resist.  "What are they, anyway?" you might ask...

There are in fact several pages on the app related to stats.  The first page, entitled "Listening Stats" depicts my iPhone Listening Level -- which at this stage could be much worse than it actually is, which is the very first level of AppNewbie (achieved on 1/12/2012 in fact). The next level up from AppNewbie is AppNovice, but to unlock that I will have to have listened to an additional 77 hours of audio books!

Above that in the mountain you climb is AppProfessional (+477 more hours), AppScholar (+977 additional hours), and finally the lofty level of AppMaster (which is the highest rating and would take an additional 1,977 hours of listening -- and my reaction is "Really?!").   My relatively low consumption rate -- a logical examination of the system suggests that at some point in the nearly 24 hours of actual listening I have unlocked the first level only -- simply because I do exercise discipline over my use of that side of the device; because after all it is a cellphone not a media player.  But still...

Listening Stats: The Badge Collection

At the moment there are a total of 15 Badges potentially available to be unlocked in the app, and each has several levels -- bronze, silver, gold etc. -- that can be unlocked.  Each badge has a unique title and image, is rimmed with a metal band that is used to display the level of progress in the activity that is associated with the specific badge (I believe it actually goes as high as 'Diamond' level) and when you touch the badge, it offers a description to you.

So in addition to providing a difficult to resist pseudo-achievement and recognition gesture, the Badge Collection for the app is also tied into the social networking world in that with the flick of a finger you can, if you so desire, cause the App to post news of your progress and current badge level to Facebook or even Twitter.  This is truly an evil element to this app...

A brief examination of my standing in this very shrewd motivation system reveals that I have unlocked:

(1) Audible Obsessed -- You've used Audible for iPhone at least 7 days straight." (Silver)
(2) Weekend Warrior -- You've listened for at least 5 hours total on a weekend." (Silver)
(3) All Nighter -- You've listened for at least 8 hours at night." (Diamond)
(4) Undecider Badge -- "You've listened to at least 3 different titles in one day." (Silver)
(5) High Noon -- "You've listened for at least 2 hours during lunchtime." (Silver)
(6) The Stack -- "You have at least 50 books in your library." (Silver)

Right then, that is all of them for the moment...  

On the next page of the Stats Section of the app is called "Listening Statistics" and it contains a running count of the time spend using the app to listen to the books that I have purchased over the years (I became a customer of the service in 2000) that is divided into tabs for Today, Daily, Monthly, and a running Total.

The Daily consists of a bar graph that shows how many hours were spent each day in the past week -- and if you could see my stats you could easily decipher from it that I have been using it to occupy my mind during my commutes.  

The fourth and final page in the Stats Section of the app is a timeline for the "Titles in your Audible Library" that tracks what the system arbitrarily decides are epic moments for me.  Bearing in mind that, having been a customer since the year 2000 it is not really a shock to discover that I actually have 150 titles in my library -- or that some years (it divides this time span up in years you see) are more book-filled than others...

Before you start to speculate that I use this app more than I am admitting to based upon the number of books, bear in mind that the primary platform that I used in the past for this book listening was split between my notebook and iPod -- though I do not actually have the app on my iPod since I have a video iPod and not an iPod Touch -- but I am getting off track here.
In the end I can only conclude that the combination of the excellent selection of books that are available for purchase on the Audible service, combined with the very shrewdly targeted system of encouragement that the company uses to get me to listen, and well... I can only conclude that I am in fact the target audience for the service.  Sigh.
Still, if you find yourself needing to fill in an hour here or there on commutes, or the long hours of a plane ride, well you could do much worse than to find yourself lost in an audio book...  That is all I am saying...