Monday, 27 April 2009

For the record, I wrote the original email before the G20. It would have been rather angrier if I'd waited a week or so.

As you'll notice if you look back a couple of posts, I sent an email off to the Home Office the other week about the frankly appalling Policing Pledge posters currently around the UK. Well, in a move that has left me pleasantly surprised, the Home Office has responded! (By sending an email with the letter in an attached Word document for some unfathomable reason, but you can't have everything...)

23 April 2009

Dear Mr Brien

Thank you for your email of 29 March 2009 to the Home Office about the Policing Pledge. As the Home Secretary receives a large amount of correspondence and is unfortunately not able to respond to each item individually, I have been asked to reply.

As you will know, all 43 forces have implemented the Policing Pledge. This is a fantastic achievement and means that now, for the first time, the public know the standard of service they can expect to receive from the police and have a greater say over the issues that they would like the police to prioritise in their local areas.

The communications aim is to make the public aware that they now have access to local crime information through an improved online service via Directgov. This includes a better and quicker search by postcode taking the public directly to improved Neighbourhood Policing Team pages on force websites via which also has more information about the Pledge and a facility to search by postcode or map for your local contacts and your local crime information.

We note your concerns, but would like to thank you for taking the time to write and also your support for the Policing Pledge.

Yours sincerely

Duncan Mitchell
Well, I have to say, Duncan, that's a rather more pleasant response than I was expecting, given the levels of snark I threw at you, so bonus points there. On the other hand, I'm not at all sure what "we note your concerns" means; it sounds suspiciously like "thanks for writing, but we're not going to so much as acknowledge the possibility of changing anything we do".

Nevertheless, the air of form letter that pervades the whole thing does at least suggest that they've sent quite a lot of letters similar to this one. Can but hope that if enough people did, then the message has got through that maybe accidentally threatening the public with poorly-worded signs isn't the way to go..

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Thursday, 9 April 2009

Assuming Men Can Fly: Apocalypse in the Year 3000

I've been without the internet for the past few days, after Thames Water managed to dig through an "uncharted obstruction" on the Olympic stadium site which turned out to be one of BT's major communications links. Suddenly BT was running on hugely reduced broadband capacity, which meant that everyone to whom they acted as a broadband wholesaler was also having problems, bringing pretty much all ADSL connections in much of England to a shuddering halt. Not the ideal way to spend a week's holiday, but oddly calming.

Not having web access has meant that I've had plenty of time to watch DVDs with my family, one of which has been The Big Bang Theory, a fairly new US sitcom about two nerdy physicists whose geeky lives are interrupted by the arrival of an attractive young woman in the flat next door. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

The show's main attraction is not the storylines — practically nothing actually happens from week to week. Rather, it's the interactions of the main characters, most of whom are the most insanely nerdish people you've ever seen. Speaking as someone who is not only a fairly high-level geek, but also lives and works with them every single day, and indeed celebrates his geekishness, I can confirm that although The Big Bang Theory's nerds are exaggerated, it's not really by that much. The reason the show works is that it goes far enough from real life to be funny, while still letting the true geek see himself (or, rather more rarely, herself) in some of the behaviour on screen.

For example, in one of the earliest episodes, our four loveable nerds get into a protracted argument about the physics of Superman, and why Lois Lane should have been cut into three equal parts by Superman's arms of steel when he caught her after a fall of several hundred feet. This is something that I love doing — taking the rules presented by a work of fiction, and extrapolating them to test their internal consistency. Star Trek nerds are famous for it, to the point where the show's writers went so far as to rewrite bits of the script to acknowledge problems pointed out by fans.

I like doing this so much, in fact, that I'm going to give it the kiss of death by starting yet another occasional blog feature. I'm fully aware that most of these are languishing in one- or two-post obscurity by this point, but screw it, it'll be fun while it lasts. In homage to its sitcom roots, I'm calling it Assuming Men Can Fly.

Entry #1 in this series is something that has bugged me for entirely too long — the lyrics to Busted's song "Year 3000". Here's the song in all its questionable glory.

I'm fully aware that there are plenty of reasons to dislike Busted, but I'm not really objecting to this song on most levels. It's chirpy, fairly harmless, and considerably better than the saccharine version by the Jonas Brothers, which manages the rather implausible feat of censoring Busted's lyrics while Auto-Tuning the vocals more than I thought possible. No, my objection is based purely on the mathematics of that chorus.

He said "I've been to the year 3000,
Not much has changed, but they live underwater,
And your great-great-great-granddaughter,
Is pretty fine."
OK, let's look at the rules under which we're operating. The first verse has already provided the premise — the singer's next-door neighbour Peter is capable of visiting the future and has in fact done so. We therefore have to assume that time travel is possible, that Peter is not lying, and that his report of the year 3000 is essentially factually accurate. Other than that, the present-day world in which the song takes place is indistinguishable from our own, so we can assume that all its restrictions apply equally well.

The problems focus on the singer's great-great-great-granddaughter. The singer himself is in his 20s in the above video — let's make the (not unreasonable nowadays) assumption that he will be about 40 when his last child is born. Over the timescales we're looking at, we're as nearly as makes no difference at the year 2010 right now, so we can therefore assume that this child is born in approximately 2030. Let's chart the data so far.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030

Next, we'll assume that medical science advances at such a rate that in each successive generation, lifespan and general health have increased the age at which you can successfully have children by 20 years. That's probably quite a generous assumption, but the song's optimistic enough (at least at first glance) to think that we won't have wiped ourselves out with nuclear war, overpopulation or disease epidemics in the next 1000 years, so let's go with it. That puts the singer's daughter at the age of 60 when she has her last child, so we can fill in the next row of the table as well.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030 60
Granddaughter 2090 80

From there, it's a pretty simple operation to fill in the next three generations as well.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030 60
Granddaughter 2090 80
Great-granddaughter 2170 100
Great-great-granddaughter 2270 120
Great-great-great-granddaughter 2390 140

So essentially, the singer's great-great-great-granddaughter — who, we are told, is "pretty fine" in the year 3000 — is also six hundred and ten years old. Even with our generous assumptions about medical science, this seems rather implausible — even if she's somehow managed to live that long, the odds of her looking "pretty fine" are slim enough that it tells us rather more about Peter's taste in women than it does about the future.

So, like all good scientists, the first thing we change is our assumptions. The first thing we can do is assume that the last child in each generation, apart from the great-great-great-granddaughter herself, is always male. Men can reproduce to a much greater age than women (practically to the end of life), so if we make the assumption that this is what's happening (despite the rather unpleasant accompanying mental images), we can get a much bigger increase in reproductive age in each generation. Let's assume that longevity is improved to much better degree than maximum age of childbirth, and that 40 years are therefore added to each successive generation. Our table now looks like this.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Son 2030 80
Grandson 2110 120
Great-grandson 2230 160
Great-great-grandson 2390 200
Great-great-great-granddaughter 2590 240

Hmm. Well, it's an improvement, but not a great one — now she's a sprightly 410 years of age when we see her. Clearly there's a gap somewhere of several hundred years, during which no successive generations are produced but the family continues. There are several mechanisms by which this could happen.
  1. Global catastrophe. A war, or an asteroid impact, or some other cataclysmic event causes the Earth's population to be drastically reduced. In a bid to keep humans genetically diverse, scientists take DNA samples from as many surviving people as possible while the population decreases. When conditions improve, new humans are cloned from these samples, thus keeping a consistent bloodline while still allowing for a long period of time to pass.
  2. Cryonic preservation. At some point in the family tree, one of the singer's descendants becomes critically ill and, before his death, opts to have himself cryonically preserved until such time as medical science can cure him. After several hundred years, either this occurs, or the scientists involved suddenly realise that there isn't actually any cure for death, and just clone him instead.
  3. Suspended animation. A technique is developed, several hundred years from now, which can slow down time over a very small area. One of the singer's descendants, either by design or by chance, gets trapped in an area of this type and is preserved until such time as the effect is removed. As far as he is concerned, almost no time has passed, so he is still biologically viable; reproduction continues naturally.
  4. Time travel. One of our starting assumptions is that it's possible to travel to the future. Perhaps the singer took further jaunts into the future with Peter, and at some point managed to start a family several hundred years further down the line than expected.
All interesting possibilities, and I'm certain all of them have been used in science fiction stories before now. But which, if any, has occurred in this case? The clue is in the chorus reproduced above.
Not much has changed, but they live under water...
This seems to suggest that option one is the most likely. A disaster of Biblical proportions has either caused the sea levels to rise, or rendered the land uninhabitable, with the result that humanity now lives under the sea. It has also apparently changed human physiology (a later verse suggests that there are now three-breasted women who swim around totally naked), which may indicate a higher rate of mutations, possibly indicating in turn that the land's surface is off limits due to dangerous levels of nuclear fallout. In this reading, "Year 3000", far from being a perky song about time travel, is actually a dire warning about the coming threat of nuclear Armageddon.

However, there is an alternative reading, suggested by the lyrics of the last verse:
I took a trip to the year 3000,
This song had gone multi-platinum,
Everyone bought our seventh album...
A cursory reading of Busted's Wikipedia page shows that, prior to their split in 2005, the band in fact released only two albums. This suggests a fifth possibility:

  1. Multiple timelines. The original trip into the future did not, in fact, visit our world as it will be in the year 3000; rather, it caused the universe's timelines to fork, delivering the singer and his neighbour to a different world, one in which lifespans increase by 78 years each generation (the exact amount required, under the all-male assumptions, for the great-great-great-granddaughter to be aged 30 by the year 3000), where Busted stayed together long enough to record 7 albums, where humans live idyllic lives among the fishes, and where women have three breasts for some reason.
The question now, of course, is this: if our cheery spiky-haired singer went off into that timeline, and his offspring populate that one rather than this one, presumably he stayed there. Does that mean that, in the song's universe, the members of Busted no longer exist within the world as we know it?

And if so, please can I go there?

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