Thinking About Time

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of Relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.

-Albert Einstein

My friend Jonathan recently sent me a blog post from sci fi writer/mathematician Rudy Rucker’s blog of his memories of Kurt Gödel, compiled from several talks they shared in the 70s.  I think it’s interesting that Rucker published this piece within only a week of me publishing my thoughts about my interactions with RL “Bob” Morgan.  This isn’t by way of comparison of Gödel and RL “Bob” (although “Bob” did win the California state math championship in high school.)  Nor is it intended to compare my writing with Rucker’s.  It’s just an interesting coincidence.  If you read Rucker’s writing about Gödel, you may even come to the conclusion that it’s an inevitable outcome given the givens.

One thing that struck me about Rucker’s piece is his description of Gödel’s thinking about time- specifically, the idea that time is just one factor in spacetime, and that our perception of time is an artificial perception of an epiphenomenon of higher-dimensional reality.  When you combine this with Gödel’s unique way of thinking about thinking, putting himself in a position to think about very complex problems without the constraints of ordinary reality (cf: his idea that the human mind is capable of understanding the set of all real numbers even though Cantor’s Continuum Problem states that we aren’t capable of knowing the answer) I think you can begin to use the idea to think about time in some really interesting ways.

A black swatch watch on a wrist with pink time markings

One aspect of time that is quite odd is déjà vu – the feeling that something that is happening to you or a place you are visiting for the first time has happened to you before, or that you’ve been there before, even though this doesn’t seem possible.  I can remember having regular, powerful feelings of déjà vu as a child.  In one instance, we travelled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.  There were several places there which I was sure I had visited before – they induced very powerful, almost exhilarating feelings of recognition in me.  Many people who I’ve talked to about these types of feelings report that they had much more frequent feelings of déjà vu as children.  I have not had any of these feelings since I was roughly eight years old.

I think that the Einstein quote at the top of this piece says something about the way we think as children that can be applied to Gödel’s thoughts about our artificial perception of “time.”  Perhaps, when we experience déjà vu as children, we are somehow accessing the  “unflattened” hyperdimensional reality of spacetime.  What is it that makes us lose this ability as adults?  Does everyone lose this ability?  When you start to explore some of the aboriginal cultures of the world, it seems that not all cultures lose this ability.  What is it about western civilization that causes us to fall out of touch with spacetime?

Bobs I Have Not Known

Copyright (c) 2012 by Nicholas Roy, all rights reserved.  No use or duplication of this material without written consent of the author.

There are two Bobs who have shaped my life, and I have not really known either of them.

I was born in the center of the Adirondack Park in northern New York.  It is, as far as I can tell, the largest state park in the United States.  It has mountains, but not like the Rockies.  These mountains have been smoothed away by the last bakers’  dozen million years of geologic time, so that they are now soft and round and green.  They are not threatening or majestic.  They are human-scale mountains.  They welcome you home when you first see them peeking through the treeline on the way over from Tupper Lake on route 3.

Adirondack high peaksI was born in these mountains on February 4th, 1978, one of the coldest recorded days in New York state history- three years after my grandfather, George Robert “Bob” Roy died of stomach cancer in a hospital in the city.  When my family talks about it, they say he donated his body to science, a euphemism for “he was dissected by medical students.”  What’s tangibly left of him is a stone at the old family camp site on First Pond on the Saranac River, hidden a bit back from the shoreline.  It reads:

FOR BOB ROY
WHO LOVED THIS SPOT
FROM HIS FRIENDS

Memorial stone: FOR BOB ROY, WHO LOVED THIS SPOT, FROM HIS FRIENDS

If you were to stumble upon this stone (say you decided that this particular spot on the river looked particularly appealing to tie up your boat and have a swim – a reasonable thing to do,) and you went back in the woods to discreetly relieve yourself.  You might stub your toe on something and clear away the pine needles accumulated over the last decade (since the last time my family went to see the stone.)  You might wonder, “who is this “Bob”?  You would then feel a bit of the mystery I have felt my entire life.  Who is this “Bob”?

November, 2008

I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, and it’s three years after Hurricane Katrina really put the hurt on this town.  I’m here because of an Internet2 conference.  “What the hell is ‘Internet 2′?”  You ask, “I thought we were doing okay with Internet 1.”

Well, yes and no.  The Internet, as it exists today, is a piece of 40 year old technology built from a beautiful concoction of luck, human trust, extreme skill and forethought.  It mostly works today, when the inherent trust that one network researcher had for all the others on the network at the time of its creation, has been swept aside by the billions of people on the net, because the bad guys need it to work in order to do their jobs.  Internet2 is an organization funded by the big US research universities (mostly) in order to do advanced Internet research – to make the existing Internet gradually better.  A friend of mine who’s a CIO in higher ed characterizes this work as “replacing the engines on a 747, one by one, in flight over the Pacific.”  It seems an accurate metaphor.

So I’m in New Orleans, and I’m doing my career thing, which is that I work on the part of the Internet, at my day job at a big research university.  I do “identity” stuff, which is pretty much “who are you on the Internet, and how do you prove it?”  This is a new career path for me – I’ve always been interested in electronic identity, but never had a real reason to do much with it in my career until I took a job doing it six months ago.  So now I’m at the big conference, hoping to make connections and learn the trade.

I check in – the site of the conference is one of those semi-characterless megahotel conference centers in downtown NOLA (they try to make them have local flavor by naming all the conference rooms things like “Magnolia” and “Bordeaux”,) right across the street from the French Quarter.  There are a lot of dudes in Hawaiian shirts with gray beards milling around in the lobby, talking to each other in hushed but spirited tones.  They clearly know each other.  I’m guessing these are the people who know what’s happening at this conference.  They have been here before, many times.  Apparently they are all named Ken, Steve, Bob or Keith – they blur together in my head, I can’t keep the names and faces straight.

The next morning – the first day of the conference, I go to a workshop on a particularly interesting piece of identity technology.  There’s a ton of these guys in the room – I must be in the right place.  The session gets started, and it’s extremely interesting.  I start furiously taking notes on my black Macbook.  I wouldn’t even know what questions to ask, or where to begin.  There’s one of these old guys in the back of the room on a ThinkPad, and he does not talk until the very end, when someone else asks a question.  This guy – his name tag says he is RL “Bob” – gets up and speaks about three sentences that are powerfully overloaded with extremely dry wit, powerful metaphor, and seem to magically answer the 20 or so embryonic questions I had about this technology.  Who is this RL “Bob”?  I need to try to meet this guy.

I stole my grandfather’s World War II pilot logbooks from my parents’ house.  I spent hours looking at every entry in them.

20 June, 1945 – 20 hours Midway to Tinian Hop

He was on the island where they launched the Enola Gay on its mission to destroy Hiroshima.

His logbooks had the numbers of the units he was assigned to in them – things like VPB-11.  I did Google searches for days, trying to find out who else was in VPB-11 – who might know him.  It looked like that unit has been disbanded for a long time, and they had stopped having reunions 10 years ago.  Who might know him or know about him?

My dad had good and bad stories about him, but they were mostly shaded with his apparently ill temper.

My dad, as a child, had lost a stuffed bunny rabbit out the car window.  My grandfather had refused to stop the car to pick it up – he would teach my dad a lesson about carelessness and consequences.

He got so mad at a chainsaw one day, cutting wood, that he did something stupid and terribly inured himself, while caught up in his anger.

But his family and friends had cared – deeply – about him, had put this stone in the mountains he loved.  His spirit was there, they knew it and wanted him to be at peace.

2010

Who is this “Bob”?

That’s what his personal web site opens with.  It is a collection of links to a whole series of different “Bobs” with interesting, short questions asked about their true identities.  One of the links is to his blog.  I click on it.  In the last two years I have learned an enormous amount from “Bob” and his fellow Kens, Keiths and Steves.  I am not part of the group – not yet experienced.  I am a sophomore in the true sense of the word.  I don’t know what I don’t know, but at least I don’t know it.  I have no shame.  That’s how you learn.

They are all guides in the wilderness of electronic identity.  Maybe they can tell I’m one of their kind, or at least I really care about it.  They get my boss to somehow agree to allow me to host conference calls and give feedback on policy documents that they’re working on for the community.  I love this – I am learning more than I ever thought I could.  I’m drinking from the fire hose.

“Bob”‘s blog turns out to be about his ongoing struggle with cancer.  I learn that he was recovering from his first round of treatment the first time I saw him in NOLA.  His blog is also laced with his amazing skill at metaphor and his dry sense of humor, with common threads of baking bread, watching soccer matches on TV, his wife and daughters and their dutch Kooikerhunde dog.  This is a guy with a life.  I try to reconcile this with his seemingly endless output of nearly prescient ideas in identity stuff and the fact that he seems to know, be friends with and constantly talk to everyone in the business, and constantly attend conferences in the US and abroad.  What is his secret?  How does he not burn out?  I go home at the end of the day, nearly every day, satisfied but mentally drained and physically exhausted (how?  I do IT stuff – this shouldn’t happen.)  I’m exhausted and I don’t have cancer.  How does he do it?  I want to be like him, some day.  If I can be a tenth of that, I’ll be amazed.

We got in a fight over Thanksgiving dinner – my grandmother was at my parents’ house and could not stop talking about how similar my dad was in voice and action to my grandfather.

I had heard almost nothing from this part of the family about him, over the years, except bad things.  He got angry very easily.  He slapped people, got into fights, got out the belt.

This was not my dad.  My dad is one of the kindest, gentlest people you could know.  He is a giant teddy bear.

This slandering of my father made me angry – terribly angry in a way I could not control.  I’m not terribly dumb, so I figured out that this rage must have skipped a generation, and now it was boiling up in me.  Who was really the just target of this comparison with my unknown grandfather?  Probably it was me.  This made me even angrier.  I pointed at my grandmother across the turkey – “You never say anything nice about him!  Well he’s not here to defend himself, so let’s just shut up about him!  Screw this, I’m out of here!”  I ran out the front door into the park across the street.  I sat down at a picnic table in the cold November air, the vomitous orange glow of a sodium vapor light despoiling the terrific darkness around me.

After five or so minutes, my mom sat down next to me.

“I never saw that side of him, you know.  He was always kind to me.”

“Thanks – I think I’m too much like him.”

“You’re not like him in the way you think.”

2011

I friend “Bob” on Facebook – it’s the kind of thing a teenage girl would do – friend a bunch of people she only kind of knows.

At the fall conference that year, “Bob” does an amazing talk for a packed room on the subject of social identity – the relevance of identity from places like Facebook and Google.  That morning, after several months of not accepting my friend request, he accepts it.  In the talk, he looks at me and says something like,

“Some of the people on Facebook we know, and some we only just met.”  He looks directly at me as he says this last part. I grin back, stupidly.

I’m getting married – I have become calmer, I might be starting to see the tip of the iceberg of the things I don’t know about life, poking through the surface of existence.  The parts of me that I rightly or wrongly attribute to my grandfather, I suppress.  Somehow I know that attributing them to him isn’t fair.  He’s a ghost and he can’t defend himself.  I got my pilot’s license some years back.  The FAA pilot examiner who tests me flew P38 Lightnings in the war – he signs my temporary airman’s certificate with a barely legible, shaky hand.

I’m getting married in three months, and “Bob”‘s cancer is back.  His blog says:

Just to clear this up, for all you computer people.

Last time was “re-install OS and restore from backup”.

This time is “install a different OS”.

Next time is “migrate to the cloud”.

Got it?

His wit has not been dulled by the cancer.

She helps me, my wife-to-be.  I know I love her because the parts of me that I don’t like, now I don’t blame them on my grandfather and try fight them.  I don’t have to fight them – I really try not to do those things around her because I love her and they are ugly.  Sometimes I fail and she’s scared by the anger, I know.  I feel terrible when that happens, but I’m getting better all the time.

“Bob” is honored and celebrated by his friends and family at the spring Internet2 conference in 2012 – a month or so before my wedding.  I suspect I won’t see “Bob” again, it’s a terrible thought but it feels that way.  Family is important, I know that and he does too.  I decide not to attend the meeting to help prepare for the wedding.

Our wedding day comes and I think of nothing else but my wife and my family.  At the last minute, I look at “Bob”‘s blog – he’s been admitted to the hospital after a particularly evil round of treatment.  He says: “I’m still alive.”  It doesn’t sound fun.  I worry about him but the worry is short lived.  We have a great wedding and a fun party with friends and family.

There are no more blog entries from “Bob”

A few weeks after our wedding, I find out that he’s died through one of the many identity groups he started.  They start a web page where you can leave memories of him.  I fumble for words to say what I think he meant to me, but they end up clumsy and kind of embarrassing.  Many others knew him so much better.  I wish I had known him, too.

My cousin is getting married, and my wife and I get in the car and head out to the Adirondack mountains to visit family and attend the wedding.  We will rent a boat and I will show her the stone that marks my grandfather’s existence.  As we drive over the bridge on the Saranac River, not more than a few thousand feet from his stone, I roll down the windows.  Balsam fir floods the car with its sweet tingle.  I pilot the car over the winding road, this scent filling my nose.  My heartbeat slows.  I let my foot off the gas a bit.  We’re in no hurry here.

Self Interest Doesn’t Scale

I’ve been thinking about the commonalities of a lot of patterns I’m seeing in the world lately:

  1. The “Arab Spring” and its coordination via social media
  2. The “Great Firewall of China”, China’s (failing) attempt to keep things like Twitter at bay
  3. Iran wants to create its own Internet (a contradiction in terms) to prevent stuff like Stuxnet and (more importantly) social media-based revolts from happening there
  4. Artificial borders and internecine conflicts everywhere are becoming permeable on all levels: from nation-state policy to transnational corporate hegemony all the way down to city council meetings and managerial turf wars.
  5. How long can places like the NSA keep employees from bringing cell phones into the work place?  How about when the “cell phones” are built in to our heads and we can’t really function without them?  Are we heading toward a world where there’s going to be a policy filter at the door of the NSA that shuts off or limits the capabilities of neural prostheses?
  6. The kids don’t care about privacy or policy – they use whatever works to communicate and share, the tools are getting better every day, and the tools and the kids don’t care about any of the above limits.  They definitely don’t care about your BYOD policy.

Let me say that I’m not an anarchist. I’m not even a libertarian. You could call me a social liberal and economic conservative, with some libertarian tendencies thrown in on stuff that’s about personal freedom, not infrastructure and the commons.

So what’s the unifying factor among all the items in my list?

I think it’s self interest and control. More accurately, it’s that the structures, frameworks and artifices of control, working on behalf of selfish individuals (everyone is selfish), are starting to crumble under the weight of the network effect inherent in social media. We are becoming less about the individual and more about the set of all humans.  This is just one more step in the long history of technology overcoming evolutionary forces.

Everyone sees and deplores the recent killings in Syria, and the governments of the world have no choice but to condemn them. The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case probably never would have gone to trial if it weren’t for social media-reinforced pressure.

So what happens? Of course it looks like the control structures and the individuals they serve are pushing back. I think they are going to fail as humanity becomes increasingly interconnected.  Let’s face it: if evolution can’t win, how is power going to?

What does the singularity look like? Maybe it’s a bunch of angry kids flashmobbing a tyranny they can’t take any more. What’s the path of least resistance? Tear down the walls faster.