Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Grading the exams

I've just finished my final grading for the semester. It is the same every year. You wade through the pile of exams, slinging red ink here and there, thinking to yourself, "My God, this is a disaster. They don't remember anything. They can't do anything. I've been talking to myself in class for two months." But then, when you actually add up the grades, they often do not look so bad. This spring, the average score on the final in my "pre-med" General Physics class was 86 (out of 100), which in fact is pretty dang good; and nobody -- nobody! -- made below a 70.

How is it that your impression while grading is so different from the actual performance of the class? When you are grading a problem, you can grade a correct solution quite quickly. You recognize that the student had the right idea, used the right mathematics, and carried through the calculation successfully. There's the right answer, and the verbal explanation makes sense. Check, check, check. On to the next one. But when there is something wrong with the solution, it takes a long time to figure it out. Where did they go wrong? What was the student up to? Is this a calculational mistake or a conceptual mistake? If the answer to part (a) is wrong, is the answer in part (b) nevertheless correct given part (a) as an input? How many points is this error worth? Et cetera. So you spend 85% of your time dealing with the 15% of the test that they got wrong.

It occurs to me that there is an analogy to be drawn to the news media. Consider, for example, the situation in Iraq. The news stories from Iraq over the last two years have, for the most part, been pretty dire. The infrastructure is in ruins, the museum is looted, US troops and UN people and innocent Iraqis are blown up by huge bombs, the insurgents have tremendous support, foreign jihadis are streaming across the borders, there are no WMDs but there are leftover guns and explosives everywhere, the US does not have enough "boots on the ground" to secure the country, the political process is not working, the Sunnis are not cooperating with the election, the Shiites want to turn the country into another Iran, anti-American sentiment is running high in the region and around the world, US troops are committing atrocities against prisoners and shooting good guys at roadblocks, Fallujah is shot to pieces but Zarqawi remains at large, etc., etc. Some of this, a lot of this, is even true to some extent. There have been some encouraging stories -- the capture of Saddam, the January 30 election -- but they seem to be exceptions and they go by pretty fast. And you say to yourself, "My God, this is a disaster. It's all going to hell."

This impression is, I think, analogous to the impression that I get while I'm grading my exams. It is based on real facts, so it is hard to argue that it is simply false. But it is not a very reliable guide to judgment. The news media obviously focuses on the stuff that is going wrong, because that is exciting and interesting and attracts viewers and readers. It is a truism that "man bites dog" is news while "dog bites man" is not news. If you have thousands of dogs and thousands of men, with nobody biting anybody, that is really, really not news, and you won't read about it in the paper.

Making political decisions based on the general impression left by the fume and flame of the news media would be like my assigning grades based on the general impression I have after grading the tests. My students, I'm sure, would prefer that I step back, take a deep breath, and actually add the thing up.

Carnival time!

If I were a sociologist or an anthropologist, I'd be studying the blogosphere. This is an amazing environment for the creation and evolution of all sorts of ad hoc customs and institutions, which arise and develop with blinding speed. How do they start? What functions do they serve? What determines which ones persist and which ones fail?

One of the more charming institutions is the carnival. A carnival is a collection of links to blog entries by various bloggers, generally (but not always) linked together by subject or theme. The carnival itself is an entry on the blog of its host; the links are submitted by those who wish to participate. The carnival is not always hosted in the same place, but moves around from one blog to the next. Carnivals are cool. They are a fine way to offer some of material to a wider audience, and to sample the writing of other bloggers, which is of course the whole idea. Participating in carnivals is one of the ten blogging fundamentals discussed at this useful page. Did you know that there is even a Carnival of the Carnivals, where various carnivals get listed?

Today, I'm joining my first carnival, namely the Storyblogging Carnival XIX (which was originated by Donald Crankshaw, from whom I heard about it, and hosted this time by Sheya Joie). This is a collection of fiction, both complete stories and installments of larger works. My own entry is a science fiction story that I posted here some weeks ago. But you should head over to the carnival, stroll around, check out some of the other stories, and maybe get some cotton candy.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Bad data

Though I have what I consider to be a healthy wariness about the information that I take in, it turns out that I can be as gullible as anyone. Today is a case in point.

I am a great admirer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and I've been looking forward to his next project, a remake of King Kong, due out at the end of this year. So I've been watching the Production Diary videos that have been posted about the movie as it is being made. These are glimpses of the inside of the film-making process, with everything from the elaborate detailing of the New York set to Andy Serkis jumping around in a motion-capture suit. (Yes, Gollum plays Kong.) It's like watching the DVD extras before the movie is released. The Production Diaries don't show everything -- they have been scrupulous about not showing any finished Kong animation -- but they are fascinating.

A couple of months ago, I was amazed and excited to learn that Jackson had been given the greenlight to immediately begin filming two Kong sequels, Son of Kong and King Kong: Into the Wolf's Lair. The latter one involved the giant ape battling Nazi-created mutant monsters during World War II. The Production Diary about this showed interviews with returning cast members and studio types, conceptual art sketches, and so on.

Well, I thought, that's great. Peter Jackson obviously makes movies because he loves it, and he's not above having some big-budget campy fun with the whole King Kong franchise. (This is, after all, the guy who gave us Braindead and Bad Taste.) Sure, heck, I'd go see 'em. Opening dates in 2006, you say? Cool.

Today, my good friend Ron gently pointed out the date of that particular Production Diary: April 1. "I'm not so sure," he said, smiling slyly.

When Ron smiles slyly, it means something. The worm of doubt stirred. And so I checked it out. And the whole thing is a hoax, an April Fool's joke. And I had bought it, completely.

This is clearly the time for me to grin sheepishly, say "Good one, Peter," and have a laugh at myself.

OK. Done that. But you know, there is more and more of this sort of thing, and it deserves a little reflection.

Somewhere in my archives there are several chapters of an unfinished science fiction story set a couple of hundred years from now. Part of the background to this story is a strange cultural/artistic movement that flourished in the early 21st Century. The major figures of this movement were anonymous, and their movement had no name. Their goal was to introduce pieces of false information into the world-wide knowledge base -- to "hack history". Since they acted in secret, it became in later years a major task of historians and critics to try to identify the forgeries perpetuated by the movement.

To take an example from the story, a small engagement of the Civil War which can be looked up (in AD 2200) in many standard reference books and databases. The question is whether or not it really happened. The history-hackers were skilled at introducing supporting information in various ways, and in designing their hacks so that they fit seamlessly into the overall structure of history. Electronic databases might, of course, have been altered. Some printed books and manuscripts from the pre-digital era might be skillful forgeries. False artifacts -- or, more easily, false cataloguing information -- could be slipped into unnoticed corners of museum collections. (Here is a box of Civil War bullets whose yellowed label says that they were collected at the site of the battle. Proof that the battle took place? Or just another artistic touch by the hackers?)

Part of the problem faced by later historians is that the history-hackers had no ideological agenda, and they kept their hacks modest in scope. Their whole idea was to remain undetected. Then, as the forged information entered circulation, their reward was to see it passed on as true in authoritative contexts. Eventually, the false meme would achieve its own, self-sustaining reality. It was no accident that the history-hackers did their work at the time when the bulk of the world's information was shifting from the written and printed word to electronic forms. This was, in effect, their ideal window of opportunity.

Another theory is that the history-hackers never existed at all, at least as an organized movement with significant resources. That in itself might be a supremely clever piece of misinformation.

The world is full of bad data. Some of it is bad simply due to noise or relatively honest error. Some is deliberately fabricated or distorted. We've got a hell of a job sorting it out.

Some years ago my parents-in-law, God bless them, told me about a really amazing article they had read. As I recall, it was about some outrageous thing that was done or said by Republican politicians. I said that it didn't quite sound true. Their source? The Onion. To be fair, neither they nor I had ever heard of the Onion before; but when we examined a few more stories from that source, we realized that we weren't exactly reading straight reporting of real facts.

Notice how similar this is to my own King Kong experience. A sophisticated bit of satire, cleverly constructed to include many of the external trappings of authenticity, provides a set of "facts" that fit in nicely with a pre-existing conceptual structure. (In my case, that structure was my perception of Peter Jackson as a gonzo film-maker willing to try anything, and the Hollywood addiction to sequels. In the case of my in-laws, it was their leftist political views, which made them more likely to believe something wild about conservatives.) And in the end, you just laugh and shrug it off. Good joke on me. But there is the lingering disquiet in the back of the mind: What other nonsense have I swallowed?

It can get more serious, of course. A couple of weeks ago Newsweek ran a brief story, based on very sketchy sourcing, claiming that guards at the detention camp at Guantanamo had tried to "rattle" one or more prisoners by flushing a Koran down a toilet. (Never mind the improbability. Ever try to flush a book, or even a bunch of ordinary paper, down a toilet? Me neither. But it doesn't sound easy.) The Newsweek story quickly spread through the Islamic world, and riots ensued in Afghanistan, killing many people and perhaps setting back political and security progress there. (A good start on the links would be here.)

Only it appears that the story was not true. Newsweek has since retracted the story, its embarrassment amplified by the unexpectedly dire consequences its story seemed to have in Central Asia. What part did Newsweek share in the blame for these deaths? Bad question; it presumes that "blame" is like "pie" and may be apportioned in pieces, so much for me and so much for you. Newsweek's editorial decision-making was flawed. The Koran-flushing detail was inflammatory -- indeed, that is one of the things that made it attractive to the editors. So the folks at Newsweek are to blame only for what they did. They did go with a juicy story based on one anonymous source and no real corroboration. Of course they did not intend the riots, the damage and the death. That possibility never entered their calculations. Any impact they envisioned for this story, I think, would have been entirely domestic.

The Koran-flushing fit into several pre-existing structures. For the Newsweek staff, it fit into the metastory about the way cruel and stupid America does harm around the world, and how the brutal U.S. military commits (by deliberate policy) atrocity after atrocity that only destroy any moral rightness we might once have had in the War on Terror, and how at the top of that list of horrors -- maybe at #2, after Abu Ghraib -- is Guantanamo. In other words, it was yet more material for attacking the Bush administration. For the ordinary Muslims in Afghanistan, the story fit into a whole gigantic propoganda structure built up by the Islamofascists about how infidel America and its lackey Israel (or is it the other way round?) hate Islam and must be fought and defeated by violent jihad. For the Islamofascists themselves, the Newsweek story was a great opportunity to spread violence and hurt the new regime in Afghanistan, and they took it, and the blood is on their hands.

The only reason that this story has become notorious -- indeed, the only reason that we know whether or not it was actually true -- is because some evil men on the other side of the world decided to use it as an excuse to foment chaos. But how many other times have untruths gone out abroad and passed into the common wisdom? What is their cumulative effect? Do they in fact make us more willing to accept the next untruth, because it fits into what we have already accepted as true?

A week ago I was arguing with my wife about torture and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and all that. Arguing with my wife is one of the great pleasures of life, by the way. We are seldom in political agreement -- we cancel each other's votes so often that it has become a bit of a joke. On the other hand, she is smart and principled, and she cares about a lot of the right stuff. And if we take it too far and get mad, then we get to apologize and make up afterward.

As we argued, it became clear that my wife believed the following: The U.S. military had received numerous reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib, which they ignored as unimportant. After the firestorm in the media, the military did respond by punishing the actual guards whose abuse was photographed. But the investigation has not touched the higher-ups, or led to a basic change in how prisoners are treated.

For once, I kept my cool and went to the sources. Here and here I found fairly authoritative Abu Ghraib chronologies and showed them to her. Prior reports of abuse had led to prior investigations, though none produced any effective changes. The military had responded immediately to the report of abuse that was made by Spc. Darby in January 2004, beginning numerous investigations that led to a lot of disciplined people and to several courts martial, some of which continue. Many policies have been changed. In fact, by the time the story (with those awful photos) broke in late April, the military had been responding with considerable vigor for months.

The point of this is not that my wife was wrong and I was right. We continue to argue the subject, because we have real disagreements of fact and interpretation and judgment. (Not, thank God, on principle; neither of us favors torture or wants the Islamofascists to win.) The point here is that she had bad data, data that made a certain kind of sense given a certain structure. If you believe that the American military is not particularly concerned about the mistreatment of prisoners, then it makes sense that any response would come from the intense external pressure generated by a sensational media story. That indeed is the impression that she had picked up from the media. The actual chronology, which complicates that picture considerably, had somehow not been made clear.

Each of us tries to put together a picture of the world. And each of us evaluates what we read and hear based in part on how well it fits in with the picture we've created so far. Something that fits, we are more likely to accept. But that makes us vulnerable, doesn't it? Each of us can be fooled by a plausible falsehood. How do we defend ourselves against bad data?

There is not general and perfect defense against falsehood. If all of society is under the perfect control of a vast conspiracy -- if we are marooned in the Matrix without any possible exit -- well, then we're sunk. But that possibility seems remote. So how do we deal with the real practical problem?

It seems to me that one line of defense is to examine the mental structures that make us vulnerable to misinformation. This suggests, among other things, a bias toward complexity in our thinking. We need to make distinctions, and we need to avoid the oversimplification of rhetorical absolutism. Not all sexual misconduct is rape; not all prisoner mistreatment is torture; there are reasonable moral distinctions to be made between early-term abortion and murder. You can be against sexual misconduct, prisoner mistreatment and abortion -- and I'm against all three -- without inflating the rhetoric. And you'd better, because inflated rhetoric makes you stupid and gullible.

Or, to take another example, one should try to avoid the view that one's political opponents are monstrous and evil. In the political culture of the United States, anyway, we mostly agree on a lot of really important stuff, and it is important to keep that in mind. The current frenzy on the Democratic side of the aisle to paint conservative judicial nominees as toxic extremists and raise dire alarms about the hate-filled theocratic agenda of American evangelicals -- well, it's a little bit silly and a little bit dangerous. And if you don't think so, reflect for five minutes on exactly what sort of falsehoods your views make you susceptible to. (Did you really think that James Dobson came out against Spongebob Squarepants because he was gay?)

But we should not simply make complexity our creed, either, because that introduces its own set of biases. Evil must be opposed and the good defended -- not naively, but with conviction. Doubt and complexity, indispensible ingredients in rational thought, must not become universal solvents that melt away all principle and purpose. Some things, as my good and wise friend Ron has occasionally remarked, are more black and white than they seem.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Welcome, friends!

We're only a couple of days from graduation hereabouts, which means that we're in the thick of the many chores, ceremonies and parties thereby involved. (When there are hundreds of people completing college educations that cost each of them more than my mortgage, there is some reason to celebrate!) Also, this week my in-laws are visiting from North Carolina. For these reasons and others, posting has been sparse.

I've felt particularly bad about that, because a recent link to this blog on Michael Nielsen's page has generated an astonishing amount of traffic, at least by the modest standards of this blog. I have the idea that lots of people that I know are dropping by for the first time, and I wish I had plenty of new stuff to show off. (Welcome, friends!)

Some of you who know me mostly via quantum information science may be disappointed to discover that there is relatively little quantum physics on this blog. Instead, there is an awful lot of politics and theology and whatnot, subjects about which you may find my opinions less interesting! I do post on scientific subjects that amuse me, but for the present I'm not planning on doing any serious blogging about quantum mechanics or the physics of information. Sorry about that.

In lieu of some witty new blogging, I've dusted off an old science fiction story of mine, which I've put in the post immediately below this one. Enjoy. If you've arrived for the first time, I hope you come back now and then.

I have no idea who might be entertained by this

The recent time-traveler convention at MIT reminded me of the following bit of science fiction. I wrote it about a decade ago, and I've always been unhappy that it never found its way into print. (Now that I have a blog, though, there's no stopping me!) My idea was to write a time travel story in a form that would not at first be recognizable as a story at all. The readers would have to "excavate" the plot and so forth from something that appeared to be a quite different sort of text -- in this case, a literary essay. They would then perceive a truth that eludes even the narrator. The trick would be to strike a balance between being too obvious and too subtle. Borges did this sort of thing in several of this stories. You can judge for yourself whether I pulled it off.

Writing the story entailed a good deal of research into early science fiction, and all of the scholarly discussion -- with the exception of anything to do with my hero, of course -- is reliable. (Quotations of real people, on the other hand, are almost never real -- except for the Borges citation at the end.) I had a blast writing this and re-reading it ten years on. I will be somewhat surprised if anyone else finds this amusing, but on the off chance, here it is.

Edward Eaves: Forgotten Prophet
This essay is the introduction to a forthcoming edition of The Moon-Dwellers, by Edward Eaves, published by Erewhon Press. This is the first volume in a planned series of re-issues of the works of this fascinating and neglected author. The other volumes, including two other novels and a collection of short fiction, should see publication by 1998, the centenary of the publication of Eaves' first novel.
* * * *

From our vantage point at the end of the twentieth century, the history of science fiction at the beginning of this century is dominated by a single great name: Herbert George Wells. The scope of his imaginative vision and his considerable powers of literary expression make this valuation both proper and inevitable. His best novels --- The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon, The Island of Doctor Moreau --- have never been surpassed as exemplars of thoughtful scientific romance. His short stories --- "The Country of the Blind", "The Crystal Egg", "The Land Ironclads", "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" --- are cameo masterpieces. It has been said that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato; it could perhaps be said that modern science fiction is a series of footnotes to H. G. Wells.

But the admitted preeminence of H. G. Wells also somewhat obscures our vision of his times. Beside the giant figure of Wells there stand others, contemporary with him but of lesser stature, who played their own important roles in the development of science fiction. Some of these other names are remembered today, though not for their forays into the genre: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London, to name but three. Still others are almost wholly forgotten except by a few enthusiasts: George Griffiths, M. P. Shiel, and Grant Allen. Despite their relative obscurity as pioneers of science fiction, these writers had a collective impact on its that was in some ways almost as great as that of Wells himself. One of the most obscure, and yet most important, of these forgotten prophets was Edward Eaves.

Edward Eaves is virtually unknown today. There has not been an edition of one of his novels in print since 1930. Yet Sam Moskowitz has called Eaves "one of the great originals" in the history of science fiction, and Brian Aldiss has added:
Eaves presents a paradox. Though H. G. Wells was an infinitely better writer, Eaves at his best had an imagination almost without peer. His novels and stories foreshadow most of the major ideas and many of the plot contrivances of later magazine science fiction. It is also arguable that he influenced some of Wells' greatest work. Yet he has been thoroughly (and unjustly) forgotten.
The publication of the current volume redresses in small measure this injustice. Perhaps we may yet see a long-overdue revival of interest in the science fiction of Edward Eaves.

* * * *

Edward Eaves was born in Massachusetts, probably in 1868. We actually know relatively few hard facts about his background and early life. Eaves was always an intensely private man, living in near-seclusion even after his marriage in 1905. Strangely, even though he was in person almost a hermit, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with many of the luminaries of his age, including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Henry James, and G. K. Chesterton. Many of his letters have been preserved among the papers of these more famous men, and most of the information we do possess about Eaves' biography comes from them.

Eaves was by his own account the only son of two teachers, and he grew up in a household in which current intellectual issues were the common subjects of dinner conversation. He amassed a wide-ranging but largely informal education. It is evident, for instance, that he acquired a keen appreciation of the science of his day. When he later turned to writing stories, they were marked by both an easy familiarity with the latest scientific findings and a shrewd talent for extrapolation. This happy combination of understanding and imagination doubtless sprang from the open and intellectually vigorous atmosphere of his early home. Eaves was obliged, for reasons that he never made clear, to leave his home at an early age; however, he was to continue his education by voracious reading throughout his life.

During the next decade or so, Eaves traveled extensively, probably as a seaman on various ships (as implied in a 1901 letter to Kipling, in which he refers to himself as "a mariner of sorts over a period of years"). Some of his stories, such as the space romances The Moon-Dwellers and The Star Wanderers, show some understanding of maritime life, albeit translated to outer space. He was evidently familiar with many cities on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the Mediterranean, but it was to London that he was finally drawn, arriving there late in 1897.

In London, Eaves decided to settle down. This raised the practical problem of making a living. As he put it in a later letter to A. N. Whitehead, he found himself
. . . in my thirtieth year, far from the country of my birth, with meager and declining savings and very little desire to continue my wanderings. I was casting about for some other useful employment when I came across one of the stories of H. G. Wells --- The War of the Worlds I think it was --- that was then being serialized in one magazine or another. I enjoyed it immensely. And the thought came to me, if I could write stories like that, I might be able to make some money and have some fun at the same time. So I tried it.
Try it he did, and his first novel A World Aflame was serialized in Pearson's Weekly the next year. His brief literary career, which lasted only seven years altogether, was launched.

Though his writing was inspired by the pioneering science fiction of H. G. Wells, for his first novel Eaves chose a literary genre that was already popular and well-established: the future war story. From George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871) through the work of many other writers, English popular literature had portrayed dozens of imaginary future conflicts. George Griffiths (the pen-name for G. C. G. Jones) had become one of the best-selling authors of the decade with The Angel of the Revolution and its sequel, Olga Romanoff; and the year before Eaves wrote, M. P. Shiel's The Yellow Danger had appeared. These stories tended to mix melodrama with the apocalyptic, seasoned with a dash of racial or social philosophy. The most interesting of them contained meticulously imagined battle scenes filled with a plethora of future armaments. Wells' "The Land Ironclads" and Conan Doyle's "Danger!" were two shorter examples, both of them remarkable for their accurate forecasts of real aspects of future war (armored tanks in the first instance, submarine warfare in the second).

Eaves' book was fairly conventional stuff: a mad European dictator threatens to take over the world with the aid of rockets and aircraft, but is opposed by an alliance of Britain, Russia, and America. The daring actions of the hero, John Napier, in a series of exciting but extremely improbable adventures, both in the air and on the ground, thwart the mad dictator and win the affections of a beautiful girl. The whole thing is so energetically written that it is almost possible to overlook the somewhat awkward prose and the utter lack of real character development. (Besides, these were staples of the genre and it seems unfair to criticize.) Eaves' first book was pure pot-boiler, but even so it had some significant features. His predictions of wireless communication (radio), the use of airplanes for bombing cities, and the strategic role of submarines, for instance, stand up well as predictions of the First World War.

A World Aflame was a success, and a book form was published the following year. Eaves was encouraged by the popular response. Moving to a comfortable flat in South Kensington, he began to turn out an increasing number of stories and articles, most of them recognizably science fiction. He also experimented with writing detective stories. His fictional detective, Henry Tyler Sperling, is a Cambridge mathematician who solves mysteries by mathematical calculation and logic. These stories are admittedly awful and were never very popular, but they are interesting biographically in that they show that Eaves had somehow acquired both a considerable mathematical education and a familiarity with Cambridge life. (The suggestion by critic Frank Guthrie that Eaves had earned a Cambridge degree under an assumed name is, of course, mere speculation. On the other hand, it is likely that Sperling is modeled on Cambridge mathematician A. N. Whitehead, with whom Eaves exchanged frequent letters and occasional visits for years.)

The very next year (1899) appeared one of the best and most important of Eaves' novels, The Moon-Dwellers. In it Eaves gives a first-person account of an expedition to the Moon, as simply and directly written as the accounts of polar expeditions that were widely read at the time. The expedition, outfitted at fabulous expense by the Royal Geographic Society, travels from the Earth in a space vessel powered by rockets and finds the Moon a hostile, airless place. The explorers move about on the rocky lunar surface in pressurized air-suits that are provided with heating and cooling mechanisms to protect the wearer from the rigors of the lunar day and night---possibly one of the earliest, and most sophisticated, descriptions of spacesuits in science fiction.

After a dry and almost matter-of-fact beginning that describes the expedition's arrival and first few days on the Moon, the novel begins to pick up steam when the explorers find the ruins of an ancient civilization, ruins that have stood on the unchanging lunar surface "for a thousand times longer than the Pyramids have stood in Egypt." The description of the silent, unimaginably ancient ruin is one of the best passages in any of Eaves' books:
We moved to explore the closer structures with an awe that was compounded by the eerie silence of an airless world. These had evidently once been buildings, perhaps three times higher than they now stood, for the remains of the upper walls and the roofs lay among them. There was no paint or ornament on the dead grey stone; or if there had been once, it had been disintegrated by uncounted centuries of baking in the harsh lunarian day and freezing in the long night. Captain Allen, fearing that we might trigger some further collapse, instructed us by sign-language not to enter the buildings, and we signaled agreement. Dividing into two or three parties, we made our way down the wide street over the hexagonal paving-stones, peering through the doorways of the nearby buildings, straining to see clearly through the windows of our air-helmets. All was strange, and angular, and very alien. After a time, we despaired of finding any object or place with a recognizable design or function . . . .

. . . Of the physical form of the moon-dwellers that had built the place there was no sign, unless it was the shape of the doorways. These were perhaps twice the height of a human doorway, wider at the top than at the bottom, and disturbingly narrow.
Eventually, the expedition learns that the interior of the Moon is riddled with caverns, the deepest of which are filled with breathable air; and the race which built the ruined city still survives deep underground. Almost as soon as the human explorers discover these caverns and then the ancient race, the moon-dwellers turn menacing. An exciting pursuit and pitched battle in the dark lunar caverns ensues, with the survivors of the expedition finally escaping and leaving the Moon in their rocket. The moon-dwellers themselves are suggested in a fragmentary way rather than clearly drawn: tall beings like moving trees, with slender, whip-like tentacles, who communicate in musical piping sounds. The net effect is reminiscent of the Old Ones in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and doubtless was one of Lovecraft's influences.

Another influence that Eaves surely had was upon H. G. Wells, whose own account of a lunar voyage, First Men in the Moon, was published only two years afterwards. Wells' heroes arrive on the Moon with the aid of the gravity-shielding substance Cavorite instead of rockets, but once there they also find a hidden society of alien beings living in caves deep within the Moon. Wells, of course, adapted the basic idea with his usual brilliance into both an evolutionary speculation and a social allegory, aspects that are not to be found in the exciting but fairly superficial novel by Eaves. Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that Eaves influenced Wells very strongly in his fictional depiction of life within the Moon. First Men in the Moon has been called the first great modern interplanetary romance, but in fact that honor belongs to its precursor and probable inspiration, The Moon-Dwellers.

Strangely, though it was a better and more inventive book than A World Aflame, The Moon-Dwellers was only an indifferent commercial success, one of the least popular of Eaves' books. There are several possible reasons for this, including the lack of much conventional human interest. (This is the only Eaves novel which does not have a love-story.) In fact, Eaves tended to win the least acclaim for the best of his work. The Moon-Dwellers is nevertheless of crucial importance because of its influence both on Wells and, directly and indirectly, on later science fiction.

* * * *

At about this time, Edward Eaves was also writing shorter imaginative stories, which met with a more enthusiastic readership and gave Eaves a reputation as "the second H. G. Wells." Eaves, like Wells, was quick to recognize the suitability of the short story form for the development of science fiction ideas. Re-reading his stories today, one is struck by the number of modern science fiction cliches that first saw light in their pages. To be frank, the uneven quality of Eaves' writing sometimes makes the stories seem like cliches even when the ideas are freshly invented. A few examples will suffice to make the point:

In "A Plague of Flies" (1899), a scientist afflicted by a pathological fear of insects discovers a poison that destroys all insect life on Earth. This may be the first ecological science fiction story, for Eaves sketches the resulting disintegration of the food chain with an almost modern appreciation of biological interdependence. The story ends with a few surviving human beings searching for food in an environment that is rapidly becoming desert.

"In the Pyramid" (1900) concerns an archaeologist who discovers that ancient visitors from Mars helped to construct the Egyptian pyramids.

"The Machine Man" (1901) depicts a scientist afflicted by a progressive paralysis, who gradually assists and then replaces parts of his body with mechanical contrivances---becoming thereby one of the first cyborgs in literature.

The eponymous specimen in "The Egg of the Dragon" (1901) is brought back to London by an expedition returning from central China; it turns out to be a preserved dinosaur egg, which hatches when warmed. The resulting havoc as the young and fast-growing dinosaur terrorizes London probably inspired the similar episodes at the end of Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) and countless imitations.

In "The Somerset Meteorite" (1902), a meteorite exerts a strange and frightening influence on the inhabitants of a small English village. The resulting plot is familiar to any watcher of science fiction and horror movies: it is more or less The Invasion of the Body Snatchers set in post-Victorian England.

"The Discovery" (1903), one of Eaves' later stories, is written almost entirely as a conversation between two astronomers. They have just discovered that the Sun will soon explode; but rather than cause the world-wide panic and suffering that such an announcement would surely evoke, they decide to destroy their data and agree not to disclose their findings. (The story was actually produced as a short play in London in 1904, among the earliest dramatic presentations of science fiction.)

In most of these stories, the idea takes primacy over plot and character. This is a tendency shared by Wells and others, and it is a tendency that is notable in science fiction stories to this day. Science fiction is, after all, a literature of ideas, and such conventional story elements must often take a back seat. The few exceptions to this rule among Eaves' stories were mostly written in the later years of his short career.

* * * *

Eaves published his third novel, The Ashes of the Phoenix, as a serial in 1901, with the book appearing later the same year. A sequel to his popular A World Aflame, the book was a sure-fire hit, and was the only one of Eaves' serials to run in Pearson's Magazine, the more upmarket of publisher Arthur Pearson's stable of periodicals. In this sequel, sixty years have passed since the victory in the global war described in the first book. A second, devastating world conflict has been fought, virtually destroying civilization and reducing every city to ashes. John Napier, the protagonist of A World Aflame, returns as an old man, the leader of a small remnant of civilization that is fighting for survival against hordes of hostile barbarians.

Napier's character has become considerably more three-dimensional since his appearance as a two-fisted hero in the first novel. In the sequel, he is almost a tragic figure, haunted by his vivid memories of the vanished glories of civilization and by his grief for his lost wife, who died in the conflagration. His painful past has been transmuted into an almost obsessive concern with the future, giving him an indomitable will to survive and prevail in the new barbaric world.

The Ashes of the Phoenix is one of the early post-apocalyptic stories, a variety pioneered in 1884 with Richard Jeffries' After London. These became a staple of later science fiction, particularly after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945; but they had a long pedigree before that. Eaves' version, as its title suggests, ends on a hopeful note. The marauding barbarians are defeated and conquered by Napier's little band, who use their superior knowledge of science in a variety of inventive but far-fetched ways. In the last scene, a school is established so that the children of the barbarians can be taught to read and write. Civilization, we are led to believe, will soon rebuild itself and rise again like the Phoenix.

If The Moon-Dwellers is the first modern interplanetary romance, then Eaves' next book, The Star Wanderers (1902), is the first modern interstellar epic. Since The Moon-Dwellers, popular stories of space travel were becoming somewhat more common; Wells had published First Men in the Moon just the year before, and even George Griffiths had published A Honeymoon in Space in 1900. Eaves evidently felt the need to draw his canvass larger still. The central characters in The Star Wanderers are the crew and passengers of an interstellar spaceship that becomes lost in a remote region of space and must therefore search from star to star to find the Earth again. Along the way they visit three different planets which resemble the Earth and on which they have various adventures. First, they discover a planet which is like the Earth of one hundred thousand years ago. On this planet they find groups of stone-age humans and pre-human ape-men, who are engaged in a bloody war; the travelers are able to tip the balance of power in favor of the humans before they depart. On the second planet, they encounter a civilization with obvious similarities to ancient Rome. At first hailed as gods because they descend from the sky, the travelers soon run afoul of the local authorities and wind up in the coliseum. They escape by fomenting a slave rebellion, return to their ship, and leave to continue their search. The third planet resembles Earth even more closely than the other two, but it is the Earth of the distant future. On this planet all war and disease have been eradicated, and the inhabitants live thousand-year lifespans of peace and plenty, aided by their telepathic powers. They welcome the travelers and show considerable hospitality, building them houses and providing them with every comfort. The travelers are at first disposed to stay; however, they eventually recognize their houses as cages. They are, in effect, on display as specimens of primitive beings. Evading (with difficulty) their telepathic captors, they continue their voyage and eventually find the real Earth.

This interstellar version of the Odyssey is probably one of the original sources for a great deal of today's popular science fiction. It is even possible to discern the kernels of Star Trek plots among its loosely-connected episodes. (The fact that the central character has an unmistakable resemblace to Captain James T. Kirk makes the connection irresistible!) The widespread influence of The Star Wanderers, however, does not alter the fact that it is an overly long, poorly constructed story. The action is formulaic and repetitious. It was certainly written in haste; Eaves himself admitted as much in a 1904 letter to G. K. Chesterton:
Well, I freely admit that The Star Wanderers is actually rather awful in places. To tell the truth, I was rushed by the magazine deadlines, and did not have the time to put it together properly. You will know something of that . . . . It is also too long; but there were so many things I could have thrown in, the wonder is that it is as short as it is. On the next book, though, I will take the time to get it just right, and damn the deadlines.
The next book was his last and best novel, called In the City of the Sphinx (serialized in 1904 under the title, A City of Tomorrow). With this book Edward Eaves established himself as one of the fathers of another sub-genre of science fiction, the anti-utopia. Eaves was in fact one of the literary forebears, along with Jonathan Swift and Yevgeny Zemyatin, of both Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World.

The world of In the City of the Sphinx lies in the far future. It is a world that is materially prosperous and scientifically advanced, but in which all human action is rigidly controlled by giant "electric brains" that supervise all of society. The electric brains are, of course, what we would call computers; and the master computer of the entire world, known as the Sphinx, is one of Eaves' best creations---a machine so wonderfully imagined as to become almost a character, yet remaining always a machine.

The hero of the story is a clerk named Roger, who works in the Records Department, in which capacity he tends the electric brains by providing them with information to read---books, statistics, reports, newspapers, etc., all scanned in a moment by the vision lenses of the brains. One afternoon, as Roger walks home, a mysterious old man approaches him on the street, gasps out a peculiar nursery rhyme, then abruptly collapses and dies. The old man has said,
(A, B, C, D)
Nothing ill will frighten me
(One, two, three, four)
If I open wide the door.
Roger reports the incident and fills out the requisite forms, but for some obscure reason does not mention the old man's rhyme to anyone.

Some time later, Roger is dealing with the records of a young woman named Anna, whose strong-willed and outspoken nature have earned her several years in special socialization schools. Since Anna has now reached her eighteenth birthday with no sign of becoming tractable, she is scheduled for corrective brain surgery. Roger impulsively decides to rescue her. He alters the information in her dossier, causing her to be released from the school and given a job in the Records Department. They soon meet and fall in love, which is a serious crime in their society; eventually discovered, they are captured by the police and brought before the Sphinx for trial. The ultimate verdict and the sentence of the Sphinx are mathematical certainties, but Roger decides to argue his case anyway:
"By what right do you judge us?" Roger demanded, his voice trembling slightly.

"By the right of superior knowledge," came the unbreathing voice of the Sphinx. "I learn more in one day than a man learns in a lifetime, and I am a thousand years old. It would be foolish not to accept the judgment of a higher intelligence."

"But you don't know everything!" cried Anna.

"Perhaps not. Perhaps you can tell me something that I do not know," said the Sphinx.
There follows a sort of riddle-game, in which Roger and Anna try to stump the Sphinx with questions. Eventually Roger realizes that he and his colleagues have worked for centuries to make sure that the electric brains do know everything; in desperation, he seizes on the one piece of information that he has ever kept to himself. He recites the old man's rhyme. It has an astonishing effect:
Suddenly the harsh actinic glare from the lenses of the Sphinx diminished, and the vast hum that filled the Great Hall seemed to falter, pause, and resume again with a different tone. The guards at the portal of the Hall, responding to some invisible signal, bowed low, left the room, and silently closed the enormous doors behind them. Anna and Roger looked at one another fearfully, certain of the nearness of death, and clasped hands.

The voice spoke again, this time more softly. It said, "What is your command, O my Master?"
The nonsense rhyme is actually an ancient password, devised by the builders of the Sphinx to maintain control over it and then almost forgotten. With it, the all-powerful Sphinx is now his servant. Roger, the first computer hacker in the history of science fiction, has broken into the system.

The end of the story is somewhat weak. Roger realizes that he now has absolute control over the world, to reshape it as he wishes. The prospect frightens him. He learns from the Sphinx that there is a small colony of people on a remote island beyond the control of the electric brains. He asks that he and Anna be given the means to travel there, and his orders are instantly obeyed. The novel ends as he and Anna are approaching a beautiful island, their new home, in their airship.
"Will we ever go back?" asked Anna, gazing at the tropical sunset that turned the waves far beneath them as red as wine.

"Someday," said Roger, his own gaze a million miles further off. "When we are wiser, perhaps. Or else, if you and I do not return, then our children will, or their children. It will not be an easy thing to remake the whole world; and when the time comes, I think we had better be ready."
In the City of the Sphinx was Eaves' least popular novel at the time of its publication, though it is of greater interest today. Its future anti-utopia is wonderfully imagined, full of small, almost off-hand details that are startlingly familiar to the modern reader. Computers and computer programs, broadcast television used as a means of social control, psychological conditioning and psychosurgery---these are presented rather casually, yet all are real science fiction innovations and, on occasion, chillingly accurate prophecies of the future.

* * * *

This was the last novel of Edward Eaves. There followed a few short-stories; then, after his marriage in the summer of 1905, he ceased writing altogether. His last stories are workmanlike (Eaves had improved as a writer over the years) but generally unremarkable---with one major exception, almost the last fiction he ever wrote: "The Hermit of Holybridge," which appeared in The Strand in 1905.

In this story, Eaves turned at last to the one major theme of science fiction that he had never explored: time travel. The narrator, a young Oxford student who has returned to his native village of Holybridge for the holiday, learns of a strange new resident in the town. This is the Hermit (as everyone calls him), a reclusive but apparently well-to-do man who has purchased a small farm at the edge of town and taken up residence there. The Hermit is civil enough to those he meets on his infrequent trips into the village, but he volunteers no information about himself and is quite skillful at deflecting questions. The village busybodies are abuzz with speculation: the Hermit is Royalty living incognito, or a fugitive criminal, or perhaps a famous playwright working on a new play.

The young student decides, after a chance encounter, that the Hermit is a highly educated man and worth knowing better. On the pretext of asking to borrow a book, he arrives at the Hermit's doorstep; but finding the owner of the house momentarily out, he lets himself in and has a look around. Inside he finds simple living quarters, great piles of books and newspapers, and several rooms filled with complex electrical and mechanical apparatus that he does not begin to understand.

Upon his return, the Hermit is at first angry at this intrusion, then eventually won over by the student's curiosity and admiration. "You must be the greatest inventor who has ever lived!" says the young man, sweeping his arm around to indicate the mountains of scientific equipment. The Hermit smiles and shakes his head. Finally, he decides to satisfy the student's curiosity. They sit down before the fire and the Hermit tells a remarkable story.

The Hermit is, of course, a time-traveler from the future, trapped in the present time by an unfortunate accident, unable to return to his own era.
"You mean---a time-traveler like the man in The Time Machine?" I asked incredulously.

"Well, yes, a bit like that, though the exact technique is rather different than Wells supposed."

"And all of this---?" I indicated the rows of curious apparatus that occupied every cupboard and shelf. "Are you trying to build you another time-traveling machine?"

He smiled sadly. "No, that is quite impossible. If you found yourself in the time of Henry VIII, could you build a telephone? Or an aeroplane? It is as hopeless as that."
The Hermit's time machine is enormous, the size of a large building; and it operates only as a transmitter, not a Wellsian self-contained vehicle -- "a door, not a carriage." By mistake, the Hermit has been sent too far into the past, decades before the existence of any machine able to return him to the future and thus beyond any hope of rescue.

The young man asks why the Hermit has become a recluse, since his advanced scientific knowledge could so greatly benefit present-day humanity. The Hermit replies,
"Yes, you're right. I could do all of those things. Even though I was not trained a doctor in my own time, I probably know enough medicine to cure some of your worst diseases. I could produce a revolution in your science and industry. I even know quite a bit about the next European War, in which millions will perish, and could possibly find a way to prevent it. But I must not."

"You must not prevent a war?" I cried. "For God's sake, why not?"

"Because that would prevent the future---my future, my home---from ever coming about at all. If I disturb the past that I am condemned to live in, then the future I come from, with all of its thousands of millions of inhabitants, will never exist."
In these lines Eaves discovers one of the principal themes of the time-travel story: the dangerous possibility of changing the future by modifying the past. A short time later, Eaves gives this theme what is for him an uncharacteristically personal touch:
"Look," said the Hermit at last. "Let me show you something." He reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out a small leather pouch, from which he produced a photograph of a young woman. He let me study it by the firelight. She was a lovely woman, with long golden hair pulled backwards in a strange fashion and skin as dark as a Spaniard's. Her open face was alight with humor and grace. (The photograph itself was made of a smooth, flexible material that I did not recognize.)

"She's beautiful," I said, handing the portrait back to him. He received it and gazed into the face.

"My wife Laurel," he said simply. "That is, my wife that will be, after she is born, which will not happen for a century or so." I wondered if I saw tears in his eyes, but his voice remained calm and steady. He continued: "Less than a mile from this house lives someone whom, I happen to know, will become her great-great-grandfather. He does not know it. He never will know it. But suppose that some action of mine, by purest accident, causes him harm? Or suppose that what I do prevents him from meeting the woman who is destined to be his wife and to bear his children? Then my wife, whom I love more than my own life, can never be born."
Eaves, having invented the "grandfather paradox", almost calls it by its modern name.

The Hermit convinces the student to tell no one of his real origin, and the student leaves to go back to Oxford. In a particularly skillful twist, Eaves contrives through the Hermit to tell the reader what the narrator never understands: that it is the narrator himself who is the great-great-grandfather of Laurel. In a sense, the Hermit has, however remotely and indirectly, made contact with his wife over the gulf of time.

* * * *

It is tempting to think of Edward Eaves as the Hermit, living in an unbroken solitude and dreaming of the future. I believe that this story, perhaps his best, gained much of its emotional power from just this resonance. But the solitude of Edward Eaves did not long remain unbroken. In July of 1905, Eaves wrote to Whitehead:
I am overjoyed (and still a little surprised) to be able to announce that I am married! I can hardly express what a wonderful thing this is, beyond all expectation . . . . This probably means for me a long vacation from story-writing. Sarah and I have plans to travel through Europe.
The sudden and unexpected nature of the Eaves' wedding -- he had not mentioned it even three weeks before, in a letter to Kipling -- does not seem to have made the marriage less happy. In fact, the couple became inseparable. Sarah Eaves evidently had brought some financial resources of her own to the union. This, together with his own small savings, was sufficient for Eaves to give up his writing as a source of income. He therefore simply stopped, never publishing another word of fiction. So ended, in sudden nuptial bliss and financial independence, one of the most brilliant careers in the early history of science fiction.

The Eaves family moved to Switzerland, where they purchased a villa near Lugano. For a time they earned their living by tutoring local students in English and mathematics. Edward meanwhile made a number of shrewd and forward-looking investments of their money in radio and automobiles, and in a few years they were able to live quite well on the income from their holdings. They acquired Swiss citizenship in 1911 and lived there through the First World War and for most of the period between the wars. Edward and Sarah were known to their neighbors as cultured but private people, who kept largely to themselves and received few visitors.

Edward Eaves died in Lugano in 1938, and his wife followed him within a year.

* * * *

What are we to make of Edward Eaves? He was not a great writer or a particularly deep thinker. Brian Stableford groups him with the "minor" writers of scientific romance of the pre-war years; yet such a simple classification does not tell the whole story. It is true that most of his stories were indifferently written, strung together with contrived plots and little serious characterization; but the same could be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs, certainly a "major" writer in the history of science fiction.

The significance of Edward Eaves lies not in the influence of his literary style but in the range of his imagination. He had an almost uncanny knack for envisioning new technologies. He had an equal gift for understanding the thematic possibilities in a science fiction idea, possibilities that other writers would explore for decades. If Eaves were to read a science fiction book or magazine of today, or watch a science fiction film, he would find much that would be familiar and recognizable to him.

Jorge Luis Borges has written that every writer of literature creates his own antecedents, by developing and perfecting aspects of past works that were previously unseen and unknown. We can thus understand the meaning of the past only from the standpoint of the future. In this sense, the whole panoply of twentieth century science fiction has made the work of Edward Eaves great indeed.

Benjamin Schumacher
Gambier, Ohio
October, 1995
Dr. Schumacher is a physicist at Kenyon College, where he teaches and conducts his research into black holes, quantum mechanics and information theory. He is a lifelong reader of early science fiction, and is an acknowledged authority on the works of Edward Eaves. He has been an Eaves enthusiast since he was a boy, when he ran across an old copy of The Moon-Dwellers in a public library during the very summer in which Neil Armstrong first set foot on the lunar surface in the Sea of Tranquility.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Adding a blogroll

This is one of those annoying "check out my new features" posts that appear on blogs from time to time. Sorry.

I have mentioned before that I'm still new to this, and until recently I had not figured out how to add a "blogroll" to my page.

As you'll see in the sidebar, I have now cleared that hurdle. All that was really needed was to examine the HTML code in another blog and figure it out. I picked Joe's page, partly because he uses a similar template and partly because he did offer to help me out. The blogroll here does not include everyone that I read on a regular basis, but these are the ones I look at most frequently. (The division I've made between "Frequent reads" and "Friends", of course, is not meant to suggest that I do not frequently read my friends' blogs, nor that I am unfriendly toward those whose writing I read most often!)

Under "Favorite posts" I've added links to some past posts that seemed to turn out well and which might be of lasting interest. (In other words, they are nobody's favorites but my own!) These tend to be essays, sermons, and longer pieces. If you've just come by for the first time, feel free to check a couple of them out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A week's answer, or none.

With the end of our term, the teaching business has been brisk, and there has been too little time left over for blogging. Yet I have been tinkering with some notes for new material to post here.

Unfortunately, my thinking on some issues seems to ramify and expand until I'm wrestling with a gigantic essay instead of a manageable blog post. Example: I'm writing something on "inclusive language" in church liturgy. (Suffice it here to say, I have some doubts.) To do the subject justice, I should fairly explain the opposing points of view, connect this to wider "inclusive language" issues in present-day society, defend my own position, and draw what connections I see between this and other trends. Which means we're talking about several thousand words.

So what to do? I can (a) just write it all down, however long it takes, and let the blog wait till it's done; (b) abandon the topic for something easier; (c) set the topic aside for a while and wait for my thoughts to gel more firmly; (d) chop the essay up into several independent entries, which could be posted seriatim as completed; or (e) try to condense and simplify my opinions into a few paragraphs and put it out there anyhow.

(To be fair, there is also option (f), to blog about my difficulties blogging. This would be a cop-out, and probably narcissistic to boot -- like poems about writing poetry, movies about movie-making, novels about the travails of novelists, etc. Boy, I hate stuff like that. Heaven forbid that I should descend so far.)

Part of my problem is that I scarcely know where to begin. Like anyone else, I hold various principles and beliefs about the world. Mine seem to differ at a great many fundamental points from those I encounter every day. So when I try to say what I really want to say, I find myself working backward, splashing upstream to find and explain the far-off sources of my point of view, so that what I say will not seem simply arbitrary and thoughtless. That's hard work and sometimes a long journey.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, Samwise has returned with the others to the Shire, to find things much altered and not at all improved in their absence. (This chapter, "The Scouring of the Shire", was left out of the movie -- probably a good cinematic choice, but a real loss nonetheless.) Sam goes off to pay a quick call on Rosie Cotton.
"Well, be off with you!" said Rosie. "If you've been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d'you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?"
This was too much for Sam. It needed a week's answer, or none.
That's how I feel about half the time. A week's answer, or none. All to often, I find myself settling for none.

The Magus Zoroaster

It isn't every day that you run across a blog named after a scientist's quick order-of-magnitude calculation, written by a fellow who has done research in quantum computing, focusing on generally conservative politics, orthodox and somewhat evangelical Christian theology, speculation, and the odd bit of fiction. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about Donald Crankshaw's Back of the Envelope, a very fine page that I recently became aware of. After the initial shock, I added him to my "read every day" list. He has lots of good stuff and posts about ten times as often as I do.

But, I mean, dadgum. Life can be eerie.

Somebody go check the link, just to be sure that . . . well, you know. Thanks.
. . . the Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image
Walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Attention all time travelers

From Instapundit, I learn that some students at MIT are organizing what they call "The Time Traveler Convention". The theory, of course, is that there only needs to be one of these, ever, and that time travelers can attend as many times as they like. The only problem is advertising. Since it may be quite a while before time travel is invented, if ever, the announcement of the convention needs to be made in such a way that it will be remembered a long time hence. The organizers are therefore asking everyone to try to find ways to record the details in durable form.

In the unlikely event that the archive of this blog does last into the far future (insert Blogger joke here), here are the details:

The Time Traveler Convention
7 May 2005 at 10:00 pm EDT
(8 May 2005 at 02:00:00 UTC)
East Campus Courtyard, MIT
42:21:36.025 deg N, 71:05:16.332 deg W
(42.360007, -071.087870 in decimal degrees)

I'm not sure about the wisdom of giving the time to the nearest second and the location to the nearest 3 cm -- which is what a thousandth of an arc-second amounts to. Sounds to me like a recipe for an unfortunate collision! But perhaps time travelers will know how to avoid such unpleasantness.

I think I may take the organizer's suggestion to leave these details written on a piece of paper slipped into a book in an academic library. The trick will be to find a book satisfying the following competing criteria:
  • The paper needs to remain undisturbed in the book. (This could of course be accomplished simply by writing in ink on one of the pages of the library book. But this would be highly unethical, even in the service of reliable transtemporal communication.) This requirement suggests a book that is seldom used.
  • On the other hand, libraries sometimes purge their shelves of unneeded books. Furthermore, for the information to get into the right hands, it needs to be a book that someone might look at a long time from now. Both of these suggest a book that has some long-term interest and continued use.
Since I know that this blog is occasionally read by at least one librarian at our college's library, I am not sure that I should disclose my own particular plans, or at least not all of them. But does anyone have suggestions?

Actually, I suspect that this advertising is either useless or unnecessary. If a bunch of time travelers do show up, it will become a world-historical event that is likely to be remembered for a really long time -- and thus more likely to attract time travelers from the future. That is, the event, if successful, will be a "self-exciting circuit". If time travel turns out to be possible, then one should expect such things.

On the other hand, time travel may turn out to be extremely expensive, too expensive to use on entire human beings. Have the organizers made any provisions for detecting the presence of autonomous nanorobots floating around, recording the proceedings, maybe communicating with one another? The actual Time Traveler Convention could in fact be largely invisible to the unaided eye, and the organizers might miss it. I suggest that there needs to be an air-sampling system with a sub-micron filter, with the filtrate to be inspected later via atomic force microscopy. Sticky-tape sampling of the skin and hair of contemporary human guests, followed by microscopic analysis (visible light or better), might a good strategy to find "piggy-back" probes, and could make an amusingly geeky party game.

Naturally, the organizers may not wish to advertise the existence of such micro-sampling arrangements, since it might suggest a lack of hospitality to the "guests" at the convention, and thus discourage participation by our future descendents. For this task they face a problem that is opposite to their advertising problem: how can they conceal this information from the future, including perhaps the near future? After all, who knows how soon some form of time travel might be invented?

I therefore predict that we will not hear of any evidence for time travelers attending the Time Traveler Convention this Saturday night. First, no time travelers may show up. They may show up but be effectively disguised as MIT students -- indeed, they may themselves believe (temporarily) that they are MIT students, since this would certainly improve the disguise. If nanoprobes show up, they may be undetected because the organizers have not made an adequate search. Or, if nanoprobes show up and the organizers do detect them, we will nevertheless probably never hear of it, since the convention organizers will doubtless take steps to conceal a successful detection effort from the future participants in the convention.

Given the eventual existence of time travel, the sophistication of MIT students and the obvious attractiveness of their party, an argument could be made that this last scenario is the most likely one. But come on, guys, you could tell me. I promise that I won't tell anyone -- and just to be sure, I'll do my best to forget it.

Update: I exchanged e-mail with the convention organizers. In addition to the points made above, I suggested that the convention might want to make some accomodation for possible nanoguests, to make them feel welcome -- say, by providing a small UV light source for power. They (the organizers) thought this might be a good idea and will look into it.