Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Time Travel: CanCon 2014

This is a summary of the “Can We Time Travel?” panel from CanCon 2014. I learned about the Canadian Content Literary Convention last year, and previously blogged about that experience. I still plan to do some blogging on this year’s panels, but life is as crazy as ever. Particularly with me releasing 2,000 words every week in my “Choose Your Own Adventure” serial. (Feel free to check it out. Just saying.)

That said, priorities. Time travel has been my thing since Grade School! (It’s even a feature in my serial - where you can vote to influence my writing! Just saying.) So, if time travel is your thing too, or you simply want some perspectives on it, read on.

Panel Room, CanCon


The panel “Can We Time Travel? 10 Different Answers” occurred at 1pm on Saturday, Oct 4. (Or did it? Time is relative... no, ok, it did. As we understand it.) Professor Peter Watson (of the University of Ottawa) presented for about 45 minutes regarding that question. His first answer: Probably not. He started by running down the reasons why not - it’s forbidden by increase of entropy. By relativity. By logic. By cosmic censorship (according to Hawking). Alternatively, it’s possible in theory, but impractical as regards energy required. Or perhaps it’s irrelevant, because time is an illusion. For the rest of the session, he broke each of those arguments down, as follows.

Pictured: Not Now
The BIGGEST problem: Why is there a “NOW”? Our mental model of time (a linear model) sees time as a sequence of events. But in physics, time is a parameter, there is no ‘now’. Further to that, what tells us the direction of time? We like to think of “order moving towards disorder” (2nd law of thermodynamics) - is this why we think we can only go forward in time? Yet a refrigerator DECREASES entropy... as long as you plug it in (energy source needed). Peter Watson showed some videos to challenge our usual way of thinking (one of them from the show “Red Dwarf”).

What about paradox preventing time travel? First, why is it “the Grandfather Paradox” when you’re much more likely to know who your mother is than your grandfather? (Sexism? An aversion to killing your mother?) There’s also the “Where are they” paradox, in that we should now see time travellers back from the future, if they’re going to exist. Well, the ‘Many Worlds Theory’ takes care of such issues... while simultaneously being the most untestable and uneconomical theory ever. (Uneconomical because of the exponential explosion off of every action. Related to the notion of parallel Earths.)


Pictured: Not quite what I mean
What about time as a fourth dimension? This is a vague concept. However, “light cones” allow us to map worldlines in a geometrical way. Picture yourself standing somewhere. You cannot exceed the speed of light, so even after a second has elapsed, we can still pinpoint your movement on a plane within a circle, the radius of which is the maximum distance you could reach. Now continue this process using time as the fourth dimension, and we get a cone, the tip of which is your starting position. All your possible futures exist within this cone. Now, can we time travel? Can we arrange for these world lines to be closed, or to intersect back on themselves?

Having turned a vague question into something specific, Einstein said NO. Conversely, Godel invented a universe where time travel is not only possible but compulsory - but it’s not our universe (it has a centre). We DO know that gravity can twist the light cone... and if you’re close to a black hole, all your possible futures involve falling into it. (“Event horizon”: The place where no events happen. Because to an external observer, there is no time.) So a Tipler Cylinder, which is infinitely massive and rotating fast CAN achieve a world line wrapping back on itself - but there’s a technical problem here. It would be made of matter a trillion times denser than an atomic nucleus. Also, more critically, the math breaks down if it becomes a finite cylinder.

Also possible: Bake Time. We clear?

So perhaps we can construct wormholes, bending space to get around the issue of massive infinities. First problem, it would allow for instantaneous communication across space (bad because... I’m not sure. Sound barrier?). Second problem, it requires negative energy to construct one. Thus probably cannot be done in practice. Perhaps then, time simply flows, using the analogy of a river, rather than existing as a separate dimension. In reality though, that isn’t useful beyond an analogy, because “rate of change” (or flow) is per unit time... so then is time “the amount of time that passes you in a given time frame”? (One second per second?)

At around this point, it was pointed out that if free will doesn’t exist, time travel is certainly possible, but it’s not very interesting. (Destiny becomes unchangeable.) Reference here to “Slaughterhouse-Five”, a SciFi novel with a war message (or vice versa), when Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. Of note, the aliens tell Billy that free will is a very human concept. There was also mention of the idea that dreams release us from linear time (and some stories do mental time travel), but then is time just an illusion? (Lunchtime doubly so?)

Well, if illusion is involved, we’re certainly not aware of the alternative. Much like asking a fish what their opinion is about water. Put another way, is a freeway ordered in time? As you move along it, events (locations) will occur at particular times - and we could return to earlier events - but this is merely mixing up spatial position with our speed. Moreover if time IS an illusion, how can we measure it to such fantastic accuracy? Why do we even care about it?

Peter’s conclusion to “Can We Time Travel?”: I wish I knew.


Peter Watson (who, by the way, teaches a course about this) then took questions for the last 10 minutes or so. I asked about the problem of an Anchor Point (which appears in my own stories). Given how we’re constantly in motion (on Earth’s axis, around the sun, etc), how can you pinpoint location along with time? Peter basically agreed that 99.9% of the time you should travel to empty space, and he’s not sure how Doctor Who manages it. (Makes me wonder if a machine itself needs to act as an anchor point, or if it can be mobile.)

Another teacher (Richard Taylor, at Merivale) asked about gravitational conventions. Zero is the baseline, so negative gravity CAN occur close to a planet, how does that affect calculations? Peter countered that it’s technically negative curvature, not negative energy. At least, that was the bit I understood. Those were the main questions I remembered. There was also a mention of “Meta Time”, the idea that big time jumps may be possible (over centuries) while little jumps are not (over years or hours), and perhaps that’s the reason we don’t see future time travellers.

The image makes sense if you know my serial.
Someone also asked Peter what he might recommend in terms of Time Travel fiction. In addition to “Slaughterhouse 5”, he had previously mentioned “All You Zombies” (by Robert A. Heinlan) and “River of Time” (by Jorma Kaukonen). Peter finished with a slide of a number of literary options, so a few more: “The Time Machine” (HG Wells), “Times Arrow” (Marin Amis), "Einstein’s Dreams" (Alan Lightman). There were also Non-Fiction books for the subject, which includes “Time Machines” by Paul J. Nahim - a book I read back in University when writing my own stories. (Apparently J. Ouellette has also written about the Physics of the Buffyverse.) With respect to movies, Peter said one of the best is “Sliding Doors”, and one of the worst is “Hot Tub Time Machine”.

To close off this post, it would seem that the one place we CAN “time travel” is in works of fiction. (Like my serial. Just saying.) It’s so dreamy. Oh, fantasy free me. ... Okay, at the least, I hope you don’t feel like the time you took going through this post was time wasted. If you have other thoughts, mention them below!

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Grouping Experiment

This is a follow up post to Classroom Evolution, where I looked at how my seating arrangements changed over two years. This year (2014), I placed the desks into groups of three, not in a row but facing each other. At the same time, I implemented randomized seating - people not sitting in the same desk for two days running. (Not vertical surfaces, I’m not that daring.) Here’s how that’s been going. Spoiler: Painfully.

Room setup, Sept 2014

Initial Issues

-One particular class would have two students (autistic, and visually impaired) who needed the same seating every day. I worked that out in advance, giving them particular seats, figuring the others can permute around them.

-Two of my classes were less than 30 students, meaning one of the sets of three likely wouldn’t be needed (if I wanted to avoid a group of one, plus having an empty group seemed beneficial if there was someone who wanted to work individually on a certain day). Thus I figured on removing the “10”s. (Aside: I also put lines underneath 6 and 9, to distinguish them.)

-I scratched my head a bit about testing with this setup. Rather than rearrange desks on test days (as I had with prior setups), I decided I would create a couple different versions of the test - they would look the same, but with different numbers. With that plus randomized seating, hopefully there would not be the temptation to look at someone else’s paper.

-I am NOT good with names. It usually takes me a couple of weeks, and the crutch I have previously fallen back on is their spatial location in the room. I wouldn’t have that any more. So I figured on having the students make labels for their desks (colour coded by course) to help me out initially.

With all of that (more or less) decided, I laminated numbers 1 through 10, and handed them to students as they came in the first day. There were labels on the grouped desks of mathematical formulas (for instance, group 3 was “tan-squared 30”). There was some confusion, but once people had seats I went around to explain those pieces of mathematics, which acted as a reminder of what math was. Then we could get going.

I have been doing this for six weeks now.

What Didn’t Work

1) Desk labels with names. Failed within two days. People didn’t have them, or if they’d left them in class they didn’t want to search for them, or they WERE there, they were buried under binders, so no. On the bright side, what this forced me to do during the first week was go around to every group to try and get names, and while there, discuss where people felt like they were at with the material. Also, it let me recollect the laminated numbers, which became a bit of a mental check for me. If at the end of the period I hadn’t collected up the numbers, this told me I wasn’t always managing to hit individual groups. (Granted, sometimes that’s because you go where the hands are.)

2) Lamination. I hesitate to say it was a complete waste of my money, because it’s made the paper more robust, but students would flick at the corner, and literally peel away the two sides of the page, turning one number “5” into two of them. Then potentially give one to a friend, or keep theirs for the next day, or... I’m not sure what they were doing. I expected a bit of sifting through numbers, but I found myself having to do it every day, to make sure I had three, and exactly three, of each set. There now are a bunch of extraneous half sheet laminated numbers in my desk.

3) Random selection. Before the end of the first week, students weren’t grabbing a random number out of the box, they were sifting through, looking for a “nice” number. This defeats the whole purpose. So I started having to dump the numbers into my hand and literally just hand someone a number as they entered. The trouble is, in the afternoon, I have two large classes back to back (with 5 minutes travel time). So as I’m trying to save the prior SmartBoard file, and find the new class directory, and answer lingering questions, and reassure student X that they can come for help after school... the new class is wandering in and sifting through looking for a “nice” number.

I eventually had to read my largest class the riot act. I explained (again, as I had the first day) that I was doing this to encourage more collaboration (particularly with my 3M class, I don’t want a clique of 2D/2Ps - Ontario teachers will get that), and to create a sense of community, and to see how others have the same problems or different solutions, and so everyone get back out into the damn hallway and do this right it’s not that bloody difficult! (I may have been slightly more diplomatic. Slightly.)

Really? Seriously?
Related to that, it was pretty much impossible for me to pull the numbers for a single group consistently after my large class, meaning my (somewhat) smaller classes were spread out throughout the whole room - sometimes one person at a group. Leading to me saying they could hook up with a set of two. Essentially sabotaging myself. I also teetered on the edge of an emotional breakdown one morning when I was busy, and my seniors came in and figured they could just sit where they liked because I wasn’t physically at the doorway with numbers.

Writing it down, probably the sole reason I’ve been able to keep this up despite their “let’s game the system” attempts is the fact that I have no backup plan. Well that and the fact I still believe in it, trusting things will be better in the end.

4) Projector. Oh, right - my projector started complaining of overheating, so our tech fixed it up and replaced the bulb. Except the new bulb (somehow) isn’t as bright as the previous one. So if you’re in a group near the back, it’s actually hard to see the SmartBoard. I anticipated visibility being a possible issue since I wasn’t “de-fronting” the room, but this made it worse. I’ve had to let a couple students “get a lower number” (1-4) so they’re closer to the front (again sabotaging myself, as I don’t know if they’re all being honest). However, some students have simply started moving closer to the front (or to my computer) for when I’m doing an example, and returning afterwards. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to them making the effort.

5) Desk Numbers. I could not have anticipated this problem in a million years. End of September, student comes in, I hand them a “5”. They don’t know where group 5 is, and no other students can help, because they don’t know either, and where is 7 again? The layout: HAS. NOT. CHANGED. ALL. MONTH. 1-2-3-4 across the front, 5-6-7 through the middle, 8-9-10 across the back. I understand still not being sure the second week. But apparently, I can learn the names of students who are constantly shifting positions and attendance days FASTER than the students themselves are able to assign my specific values to fixed positions of unmoving objects. Do. Not. Understand.

(I had considered revising the numbering system of desks at one point, to get at anyone trying to “game” the system... number “1” isn’t at the front anymore! Thank goodness I didn’t implement this. I think there would have been riots.)

Add to ALL of those issues a couple guys who stubbornly resist my attempts to transplant them. I’ve spoken with one, he’s adamant about not engaging with people unless they approach him, and wants that particular desk. I’ve approached this from multiple angles, including saying how it bothers me, and ultimately I’ve decided do not have the energy for this daily battle. There’s also times when I feel like some of the same people have ended up together, but my memory isn’t completely certain, so I’ve avoided complaint.

In short, after six weeks, I’m kind of battered and broken.

What Did Work

All of THAT said, I feel like there have been, and are, some benefits to keeping this going. I’ve already touched on a bit of it above. Namely:

1) Forces more interaction. Not just with others, but also with me. The first week, I was having to go around to each table for names, and to get numbers. Now, if I’m not getting numbers, I know I’m not necessarily getting around to everyone. (I’m also potentially letting them get away with seating a ‘2’ a ‘6’ and a ‘7’ at the same desks. Seriously, guys?) I also feel like there’s more interaction... though that may just be someone going over to their friend to ask something rather than engaging at their seat. It’s kind of hard to tell, so I’m trying to be optimistic. I do know that once when a guy was sitting alone, and I said he could move, and he didn’t, someone else went to join him. That made me happy.

2) Creates community. In that all of them are simultaneously annoyed with me and how I’m implementing things - aka, I have united them together against me. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad (though they’re certainly united in not knowing where “group 7” is), but there isn’t really a “pocket area” of the classroom that people do or don’t want to be in. One thing that drove me nuts last year was spatial cliques in my Data Management class. This year, there’s maybe some stigma on individuals (I’ll have to work on that) but not on whole groups (not that I’ve noticed). There’s also the fact that taking the numbers has become a routine thing upon entry, which is probably not a bad way to start a class.

3) Promotes adaptability. In the sense of dealing with new peers, as well as being close to the board one day, then further the next. Plus if someone realizes they need to be away from a “friend” to get work done at some point, I’ve given them a good reason why they can’t sit together. (The flip side is if someone does want to work with someone who helps them, I’ve prevented that too, sigh. But maybe in the long run it’s better to have options? Though I’ve been a bit flexible on consulting when starting on the homework too.) Even attempts at “gaming my system” is forcing them to adapt so that they can sabotage effectively. Yay?

So that’s where I’m at. If you have any thoughts, let me know!

To conclude, just a couple things that I haven’t yet mentioned:
Back of class view
-The couple times I’ve been away, I haven’t been able to leave a seating plan (obviously) and have tried to explain in my notes to the substitute/on-call. No major complaints yet.
-The one day I allow as an exception to randomization is the review day before a test. They can even redesign the room at that point if they want, work in a group of 5, or 1, whatever helps them to understand the material better. I figure it’s not bad to shake up the usual routine.
-You may have noticed in the image above that every group has two desks with bolted chairs, and a free floating chair. You go with the materials you’re given. I have not tried to gather statistics on which student prefers which type, but do wonder about it on occasion. (Also, the actual desk positions do seem to migrate a few centimetres every week. Okay then.)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Death to Kill The Moon

“Doctor Who” has been generally good through September. However, the latest episode was terrible. I’ll try to be brief, mainly because there’s at least three other posts on this blog that I’ve been meaning to get to... but in the last day or so I’ve seen so many people either: 1) praising this episode for being amazing, or 2) getting annoyed with Clara, that I just... can’t... even. Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

I’m going to do a quick deconstruction of everything that went wrong in "Kill the Moon". However, there will be spoilers, so if you don’t want those, don’t read beneath the image. (Hint: Clara’s not the real problem.)

Don't kill this moon...

I did rewatch the episode to make sure I wasn’t misremembering things. And I grant that some of what follows is personal issues. But some of it is pretty basic. Here we go, in order of appearance.

1) Flashback Episode. I generally don’t like these, ones that start us in the thick of things, then move back in time. It’s personal preference, but I’ll come back to this point later.

2) “She wasn’t special” (regarding Courtney). Something of a shift from “900 years of time and space, and I never met anyone who wasn’t important”. I rather liked that line. But it’s a new doctor, looking at things in a new way, so fine, moving on.

I do not have an issue with the yo-yo.

3) “Save the air” The lights come on, and immediately you can breathe normally? That’s not how that works.

4) “Unicellular life” That... doesn’t seem right either, even if they’re “non-chromosomal”. Also, what’s with the cobwebs then? But okay, suspension of disbelief, I’ll stick with it.

5) “My Gran used to put things on Tumblr” Tumblr is a 21st century invention. This episode takes place in 2049. If Lundvik was 40, she would have been born shortly after Tumblr appeared. The generations don’t make much sense.

That said, to this point, the episode has been perhaps one of the creepiest “Doctor Who” episodes I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve seen some classic Who... and yes, I’m no fan of spiders). I’ve been able to overlook things. But we know what comes next.

It slices, it dices, it determines things like...

6) The moon is an egg.

I get that we’re dealing with science fiction, but you can’t just toss that out and not consider the implications. If so, how did it get there? Why is it orbiting? Why is it the last of it’s kind? More to the point, when the sun consumes the Earth several millennia down the road, I do not recall any mention of “saving the moon”. Or any future analysis of the thing, alive or dead. If a huge crater were to appear on Earth, you can’t just brush it off as “it’s always been there”, people are going to WONDER.

I’m hitting my breaking point of credulity here.

7) “It’s your moon, womankind, it’s your choice.”

Okay, whether you MEANT that to be a metaphor for a woman’s right to choose or not, if you’re going to phrase it that way, you REALLY need to consider implications! Dusting your hands, saying “it’s not my problem” and running off to leave the women to decide how to handle a major life decision is NOT BEING A GOOD ROLE MODEL. Show some SUPPORT, particularly given how YOU’RE the reason they’re IN THIS MESS (for at least two thirds of them)! And believe me, we’re coming back to this point too!

But even IGNORING all of that, the problem was the extra mass! How does killing this thing eliminate that mass? This is when I officially threw up my hands. Which is when it got worse.

8) The hull breach. Bizarrely superfluous. Why?

9) “School trip” and Clara’s broadcast.
a) That’s not an answer. The guy has no reason to trust Clara, or broadcast anything she says. For all he knows, she’s the cause of the problem.
b) Clara’s talk of “a creature” makes very little sense without context. Humans didn’t even seem to know about the extra mass of the moon (coming back to that!), so how can they make anything resembling an informed decision here?
c) Clara’s talk about killing an innocent: back to point 1, I felt like initially she was referring to Courtney, the only other person visible in the shot. In another context, I might be applauding the misdirection, at this point I feel cheated.
d) The broadcast is only in English? That sort of eliminates a large portion of the population. Though we had ALREADY eliminated the population that doesn’t have anything which can receive the broadcast! Which brings me to...

10) Turn On A Light.
a) Night doesn’t happen everywhere on Earth at once! The image looked like it was over the Atlantic, so we saw Europe and North America. I guess if you live in Australia, Africa... you don’t get to vote?
b) Not everyone can afford electricity. I guess if you’re too poor, you don’t get to vote? And if you own multiple houses, you can vote multiple times? Nice message.
c) You’re telling me that absolutely EVERYONE got this message, and decided to turn off their lights, in the span of less than an hour? Airports too? National landmarks? No fires burning anywhere?
d) You’re telling me that NO crazy people who wanted to shut down an entire power grid could have taken this opportunity to do so, to sway the vote? Or that a government wouldn’t simply pull the plug? This method seems like a REALLY bad idea.


11) TARDIS on a Beach.
a) YOUR OWN EPISODE established “tides drowning whole cities” and “worst natural disaster”. Why is the ocean so calm? Where is this beach?!
b) They look up in the light of day and see a full moon. They JUST looked down from the moon AND SAW THE PLANET IN DARKNESS. Where is the sun?!?

12) “Humanity made it’s choice.”

From point 7. The Doctor’s entire speech about humans “looking up once again” is undermined by the fact that EVERY HUMAN IN 2049 (supposedly, see point 10) actually voted for the OPPOSITE. Okay, so maybe humanity sees the error of it’s ways, but it’s because the decision WASN’T made by a human from 2049, but one from 2014. Except she wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the Doctor!! HE is the reason this happened, if HE weren’t there, things would have been different, which is so far from “it’s your choice” that it’s not even funny! Forget fixed points or grey areas, the idea that there was any “original history” here is completely shot to hell! This can't have happened the same way as before he showed up!

I think this is seriously becoming my problem with the show. It’s not that Clara is saving the day all the time. It’s that she’s constantly being put into a situation where she seems to have no choice but to do that. It’s as if, in trying to correct the problem of “ignoring” her character with Matt Smith (which I've previously remarked on), we’ve shot through towards the other extreme without so much as a breath in the middle.

13) The Problem of Mass. The newborn just laid an egg which was, at minimum, equivalent in mass to itself. Which, I suppose, started orbiting. From 9b, that can’t be how that works either. Unless it’s a tribble, I guess.

So it was with GREAT relief that I saw Clara go off on the Doctor at the end. “I’ll smack you so hard you’ll regenerate.” Hells yes. He was not being respectful, he was being patronizing, and while I’m fine with this as his new personality, he wasn’t merely being patronizing to the women, he was being patronizing to the continuity of time, and possibly physics too (the shell just dispersed, huh?).

You go away, Doctor. Don’t come back until you decide to start making sense again.