The Northern Spy – Time Flies

The Northern Spy

…like an arrow (a)

“but fruit flies like a banana”, is an excellent sentence to illustrate the difficulty that speakers of other languages have in learning English. Even most who grew up in English could not parse the parts of speech in the following: “Did you know that…that that that that that that followed was redundant?”

…like an arrow (b)

is a common aphorism to be sure…one many people would use to refer to its speed–a subjective perception of course, because for different people and under different circumstances in each one’s life, it sometimes appears not to fly but to crawl. This is especially true this time of the year in academia when the pressure of finishing off the old semester’s courses, preparing for the summer work program, and attending all the year end meetings becomes intense. 

Moreover, as our life’s experiences pile memory upon memory, things that in the moment seemed to stretch out painfully and excruciatingly slowly, appear in retrospect to have taken but a breath or a mere pulse. The opposite can also be true at other times and seasons. It is as though we divide into mental twins for a time (there’s that word again) and one embarks on a near light speed journey, the other relatively speaking confined to earth; with their experiences later re-merging into a a dichotomy of ambiguous memory. 

And, as the Spy knows all too well, this is especially so in times of grief, when one can scarcely distinguish between past memories and present realities, and the future can appear bleak for a time. 

One could suppose we could objectively determine how fast time goes in time, but only if time could time time.

…like an arrow (c)

…and others would default meaning to an entity’s direction and duration in space, further narrowing that to the horizontal component of the vector function, though ignoring the earth’s curvature. The Spy’s high school Physics teacher would (for the sake of the question) situate his quarterback on an ice flow floating in the nearby river, provide students with the masses for the ice, the quarterback and the football, plus vectors for the river current, wind, and impulse of force on the ball as it was thrown, and require to be informed of the ball’s precise landing location. Gravity of course had to be taken into consideration but that constant and all relevant formulae were assumed long since memorized. But time spent both in manner, direction and amount for the hypothetical scenario and by the students in answering the question was one’s inexorable companion in all such scenarios. Of course, every quarterback is actually expected to solve such problems on the field instinctively and instantaneously.

…like an arrow (d)

…and still others would perhaps wax semi-philosophical (+ perhaps semi science fictionally) and think of it meaning time’s direction in…well…time…that is, forward as opposed to back, or could it run either way? More bluntly put, is time a one way street from what has taken place in a definite past (assuming historians would agree what happened, when, where, and why in said past), through what we call the present (not, however, via the ghost of Christmas presents) and on to an uncertain future (whatever shape the Spy and fellow pundits think the future’s presence might present when we get whenever it is at the time). 

It’s generally accepted by most that regrets over, even arguments about, the facts of yesterday’s actions and events notwithstanding, the actual past is invariant. Altering times’s work as seen in the present, whether by individuals or collective societies is a task for the now and the developing future. Presenting a narrative of the past without social, “racial,” or national bias has its importance, but correcting the damage from past (or present) prejudices, wars, climate-altering exploitations of the planet’s resources, economic and social injustices is a necessary agenda matter for both today and tomorrow, for the past itself cannot be mended. 

Moreover, trying to sanitize the past of all that today seems unpleasant is either an attempt to perpetuate out predecessors’ (and our) errors, willful ignorance, a waste of time on an impossibility, or all three. Of course, and whatever their otherwise greatness, often our parents were racists, our grandfathers cruel domestic tyrants, our great grandparents slave owners. Neither erase nor embrace those memories. They were products of their times. Celebrate what good they did and eschew the evil for ourselves and those who come after. We are, after all, every one of us sinners, and our failings no less in number or magnitude than theirs. Learn from the past rather then merely vilifying it or worse, pretending it never happened. 

Neither may we embrace an imagined idyllic past as better then the present. Nostalgia is not what it used to be. Few people really want to return to the limitations imposed on transportation by horse-and buggy, on communication by the pony express, on computing devices by the abacus and painstakingly created astronomical and mathematical tables, on navigation by dead reckoning, medicine by leeches, what passed for science by alchemy, farming by bullock-drawn plow, or government by ruthless glorious-leader dictators who murder dissenters wholesale. 

Yet consider. Late nineteenth century foolishly (in our perfect hindsight) optimistic prognosticators declared the final victory of peace and prosperity already won due to what they saw as the goddess Progress continuing benevolently to shepherd the world toward utopia via science and technology. But those merely enabled war to become nearly world wide and far more deadly than ever before. Fascists and communists both attempted to co-opt the same goddess to create strictly top-down comprehensively managed economies and their populations, but found that deity, like all pagan ones, had clay feet. Neither such system, once adopted, has ever endured long.

Can time and history teach enduring lessons? Apparently not, for once the major twentieth century fascist and communist states either collapsed or transitioned to kleptocratic state capitalism, like minded complacent late twentieth century pundits prematurely declared the victory of liberal democracy and hailed the incipient advent of a high-technology-driven peaceful and prosperous global village. The more cautious Spy, while mapping the possible outlines of what he termed the information age Fourth Civilization in his text by that name, continued to warn that much could instead go horribly, terribly wrong. That’s what experience is all about, is it not? And, it has, has it not?

After all, large populations still live under the kind of corrupt and ruthless dictatorship where “left” shakes hands with “right” and they become indistinguishable in the brutality with which they seek to regiment populations they regard not as individuals, but as collective non-entities. The commanders of China, Russia, Iran, several southern hemisphere countries and a few in Europe are ready and willing to employ what was once imagined to be liberating technology to enslave their people and any others they can conquer, whether directly or by proxy. Even in North America, we see political parties nominally part of either the “left” and the “right” who lust after the ability to control every aspect of life and thought–including narratives of the past, conditions of the present, and a future of their own cruel imagination. Moreover, both call their own regimentation “freedom” and decry the other as “oppression”. Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the unfairest of us all? Even an AI mirror would not be able to answer.

If Putin has his way over Ukraine because of a supine NATO or the Americans elect a president who sees him or her self as good buddy to and potential imitator of a genocidal self-appointed solver of an imaginary problem, most if not all of Europe will quickly disappear behind a new and far harsher iron curtain. If Xi has his way over Taiwan for similar reasons, the same thing will happen to all China’s neighbours. Who then will be left to care about the outcome of an uncivil war already raging unchecked in the United States? Make no mistake. Fearing to act because of the threat of a World War will be the surest way to guarantee one will indeed take place, and  all the world’s vaunted technology, including the nuclear, will surely be brought to bear…for a brief time. 

Indeed, Putin seems at times almost eager to find an excuse to launch enough nuclear missiles to obliterate the west. That there could be zero  survivors, does not seem to trouble him. Has not time lessoned us repeatedly that when those who lust after power think they have achieved it, will do as they please, consequences notwithstanding? 

This would be a good time to discourse on yet another putative but deeply flawed supposed saviour of our civilization…AI. In the Spy’s novels, the AIs request additional resources in databases and storage space when they cannot answer a question. Our current online IIs (imitation intelligences) just make up eloquent sounding nonsense as found in some student essays. (Content: there oughta be some.) Is this a fundamental design flaw, or a deliberate attempt to make them more fallible than humans in order to boost our collective egos?

These morbid considerations of past and present and sketchy ideas about a future raise the question of whether the past may be malleable? That is, could the trajectory of time’s arrow be reversed? Could one build a time machine and go to the past? This might have practical value for the physics  or mathematics student preparing a thesis for a doctoral dissertation. Just re-live a four hour span enough times to finish the research, write it up and get some needed sleep, and the whole project is done in a single objective evening as experienced by her supervisor. An economics student, on the other hand, might want to travel forward in time, get a few stock market and race track results, return to the make appropriate investments, and finance her own startup chronological tourist company. Both, however, alter a history, and create a a different scene in her chronological present (or future). But this raises the classic paradox that in one altered history said time tailor-editor was never born, never invented the device, so never went back, so…, and in the other that she became rich enough to alter the subsequent stock market behaviour so the future gains she once recorded never happened, so she never had the information to get rich from them in the first place. Hmmm.

Perhaps the paradoxes of the preceding paragraph are prevented by positing the arrows of time are partitioned into plentiful volleys–multiple streamlets of time, each flowing from a different such attempt, or alternately, from different key decisions made in a non-malleable-from-a-future-present, or worse still and almost -bogglingly, from the indefinite number of alternatives to every decision ever made down to individual possible particle pathways.

Yet another possibility is that “once” time’s arrow passes any given present, there is no reversing it; that any event once observed in the river of time has as fixed-in-time a fate as that of Schrödinger’s cat once its box is opened and what’s left of its contents viewed.

For his own Alternate history SF, the Spy, Occam-like as he be, adopted the simplest of the previous alternate history scenarios, positing a division into only a few present alternate earths formed by very specific historical nexus (plural; long “u”) triggered by specific critical decisions/events or clusters thereof. One of his A-H worlds, called Hibernia by its denizens, and by others Ortho from its perceived position relative to Tirdia (the Spy’s own “home” version of Earth) in a medium termed the Timestream, separated fully from Tirdia in 1014 when Brian Boru was rescued from the murdering hand of Brodar the Dane following the battle of Clontarf, rather then dying and leaving the leaderless nation to devolve into some three hundred “kingdoms” some little larger than a big farm.  

The reader may determine for herself how plausible such tales are, or may become…in time.

…and there is never enough of it, but

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.–Ecc 3:1-11 (ESV)

As in all matters happening in time rather than in eternity, the trick for the present is (a) to learn from admittedly flawed narratives of the flawed past, then (b) make the right individual and collective binary choices from the above list and others like it and build a future in integrity, by (among other things) employing technology for good rather than evil, in peace rather then war, in love rather than hatred, with respect for others (especially when they disagree or happen to be a little different from oneself), making a commitment to learn and do the will of God, and to seek what’s in the best interests of others ahead of one’s own selfish wants–a tall order, but possible…in time?

Ah, time,

has flown, in one direction alone, duties press in, this column is late rather than on time, and time’s a wastin’ away. Time funs when you’re having flies. So long till next month, time permitting.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fifty-third year as a high school and university teacher in 2023. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He was co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect project. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (dead tree and online formats) since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and other conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and lived in the Langley/Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. from 1969 to 2021, where he latterly continues alone, depending heavily on family and friends to manage. 

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