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I’m giving you 7 months to prepare for October 21, 2015. No, it is not another Maya prediction. On that day, we will finally be at the point in time to which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels in Back to the Future Part II. The future of that Robert Zemeckis‘ 1989 sequel is the now of 2015.

2015 also marks the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future. I don’t expect  the time-space continuum to collapse in October and find Marty, Doc, and Jennifer visiting us, but I would not be surprised to see them together on TV in some reunion fashion.

Watch the trailer for that film and refresh your memory. I have already seen and heard a few news reports on what the film got right and wrong about this future that is our present, and I’m sure more will be written about it as the date approaches.

It doesn’t seem to be too important that Marty’s self-tying shoes have a Nike real-life experimental version. And the filmmakers did miss on the Internet and mobile phones, but so did most futurists. We have been anxiously waiting flying cars for about a hundred years and people keep trying to make Marty’s hoverboard.

But they did guess/predict things like computerized fueling stations (though not robotic yet) and non-military drones. One of those is used by USA Today in the film to take a photo.

It’s tough doing this future-predicting. In many cases things predicted in sci-fi came true, but it took a lot longer than expected.

In Marty’s Hill Valley hometown, the theaters are showing in October 2015  Jaws 19, in 3D, directed by Max Spielberg. Thankfully, the Jaws franchise was killed by the actual 3D third film. Max Spielberg (Steven’s real-life son, born in 1985) has worked on a few films, but no directing. That gag seems a lot more like an insider director joke than a prediction. (After all, Steven Spielberg produced the film.) They are right – Hollywood is in love with sequels and franchises in 2015.

It’s probably okay with most of us that we don’t have remote-control litter bins, dog walkers and waiters, but all of those are in development.

We are actually scanning eyes and fingerprints for identification as they do in the film. It’s on your iPhone but not ubiquitous in our homes. I still have a boring doorknob instead of the McFly family’s scanner.

We have advanced more away from paper than the film shows. The USA Today is quite a thick stack of paper and the film likes using fax machine devices which probably are only used by government agencies these days. McFly gets terminated from his job in a video call that is confirmed by a printout that looks like it was done on a dot-matrix printer using Print Shop.

Some observers have pointed to Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens as versions of the different high-tech eye-wear  in the film with cameras, magnification, information and some bluetoothy way of connecting.

I don’t remember noticing in my initial viewing of the film that Marty’s father, George, was not reprised in the sequel by actor Crispin Glover (some kind of salary disagreement). Another actor with some very heavy-duty prosthetics made to look like Glover spends his short screen time in an inverter device because of a bad back.

The film’s 2015 is having a bit of a nostalgia love affair with the 1980s. That allows the set decorators to use their contemporary props, like a Macintosh computer and a dustbuster vacuum, as collectible items of the future. Marty visit a Cafe 80s where my circa 1970s jeans, NY Yankees t-shirt and Chuck Taylor sneakers would not have been an oddity in 1989 or 2015. Future fashions in films always seem to be metallic, unisex and either very odd or more like uniforms – but those fashions never seem to emerge.

I think you’re safer predicting that the future will look more like today than going over to the other extreme.  The filmmakers were wise to have Marty able to still use cash to buy things in 2015. Even with all our credits cards and merchants experimenting with alternate ways of paying, a $20 bill still works just fine.

Doc Brown says that he had some life-extension procedures – a full blood transfusion, hair repair and a new spleen and colon – and I have always suspected that rich people were doing those things already. Those procedures help Doc (Christopher Lloyd) look a bit younger in the 1990 Back to the Future Part III, which was already in the works when they shot Part II. For III, they took an easier path and went back in time again where we know what to expect. (Not that filmmakers don’t often get the past wrong too.)

The movie missed our 2015 penchant for watching video on small screens. It does provide plenty of big flat-screens on walls with multiple channels displayed, and as advertising and even on window blinds.

No Internet in the film but the McFly family does use a big screen AT&T-connected device for video calls that looks like our Facetime/Skype/Hangouts kind of video conversation. The screen also carries data about the caller (names of children, hobbies, food preferences) which have been part of the database facial recognition being built into devices these days.



In the original 1985 film, Back to the Future, they only had to portray 1985 and the past. That’s easy stuff for filmmakers.

When George Orwell wrote 1984, he flipped his own 1948 and probably wasn’t too worried about when his predictions would come true because he was hoping his cautionary tale might help prevent it from ever coming to be.

When Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequels 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey 3 and 3001: Odyssey Four, I think he was trying to be scientifically accurate in his predictions.  Later, director Stanley Kubrick would have to update 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s technology and interpret the visuals.

Since none of us will be around to post online about how well Clarke was at predicting 3001, he was free from criticism. 1000 years after Frank Poole was sent out into frozen space by the supercomputer HAL in 2001, he is brought back to life. That future is full of  human minds that are connected to computers, space elevators and genetically-engineered dinosaur-like servants. Good old David Bowman and HAL are now one consciousness and those damn monoliths are still causing problems.

When the first film version of Orwell’s novel was released in 1956, that horrible future probably still seemed quite possible. Thankfully, when the 1984 film version of 1984  was made, the Cold War had passed, but many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have come true (NSA, privacy etc.).

I think Clarke sets a good model for writers of the future: set the plot in a time after your own death, so no one can call you out for your predictions to your face.

Filmmaker Jason Aron made the trailer above for “Back in Time: A Back to the Future Documentary.” He has interviews with Michael J. Fox, Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and many other actors, crew members, and fans of the trilogy. He is seeking funding via a second Kickstarter to complete the film which has expanded far beyond the original vision. Kick in a few bucks and be part of the project.

arrow 1

If you were to be hiking through the deserts of the American Southwest, you might still come across a large concrete arrow that was about seventy feet in length.

I’ll bet that anyone seeing them probably doesn’t know their origin and may have had another theory for their purpose. Maybe they are landing beacons for UFOs.

Not quite as mysterious, but rather interesting, they are the result of our US Postal Service starting to use cross-country air mail before it had a reliable way to communicate with their WWI Army surplus planes. This was only 60 years after the Pony Express had been shut down.

In 1924, they installed a series of concrete arrows with beacons across the country. They were set longitudinally from San Francisco to New York City spaced at about every ten miles. Each concrete arrow was next to a 50-foot tall tower with a rotating gas-powered light that was visible from 10 miles above for pilots to use in navigating.

By the time of World War II, radio communication and radar had improved and the beacons and arrows weren’t needed. The metal towers were taken down for the metal to be used in the war effort.

This Yellow Concrete Road could lead you from ocean to ocean, with possibly a few stops in Oz along the way.

The lights flashed a code to identify each beacon’s number, so perhaps some UFOs actually did see them and decoded our messages.


Remnants of Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A, atop a bluff in St. George, Utah, with concrete arrow indicating the direction to the next beacon


aliceA few days ago (January 27) marked the 151st birthday of Lewis Carroll.  An odd man who will probably always be a bit misunderstood, loved, and frowned upon. But Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still a trip to read and every once and awhile I do like to go down that rabbit hole.

The first version of Alice’s adventures I read was a Disney version in a Little Golden Book, but I loved it and really wanted Alice as a friend, and a rabbit hole in my backyard.

Here is “Alice in Wonderland,” a 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow that was the first movie adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The silent film is memorable for its early use of special effects, including Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and in her large size, stuck inside of White Rabbit’s home, reaching for help through a window. Only one copy of the original film is known to exist and parts are now lost. Thank goodness for digital.

I have the The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition that was done by Martin Gardner, probably the world’s leading authorities on Lewis Carroll. It was first published in 1959 and he was the first to decode many of the mathematical riddles and wordplay that are hidden in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. This newer edition includes the classic artwork by Sir John Tenniel, including many recently discovered Tenniel pencil sketches.


This month I binged my way through the BBC series, DIRK GENTLY,  but I originally encountered Mr. Gently back in 1987 when he appeared in Douglas AdamsDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency novel.  The BBC series starred Stephen Mangan in the title role in 2010 and 2012.

Dirk is a holistic detective. He takes quantum theories that concern subatomic particles and applies it to our world. Like Dirk, I do believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I don’t use that to solve crime, so I rely on Dirk to do that for me.

Dirk was born Svlad Cjelli (AKA Dirk Cjelli). In the books, he is rather pudgy man and typically wears an old brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, with a  long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles.

Dirk is always in need of money and in need of clients. He is expensive to hire because his expense accounts include everything, since everything is connected to solving the case – from fish and chips to a few weeks in the Bahamas. However, you can’t say that he rips off his clients because they never seem to pay him.

As anyone who has read or heard about Douglas Adams’ more famous series, the Hitchhiker’s Guides, (which have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide), the Dirk stories are half serious, half humorous.

Dirk’s office at 33a Peckender St. N1 London is probably messier than Sherlock Holmes’ lodgings at 221b Baker Street in that city. The two detectives do have some things in common, though I would guess they are also completely opposite.

Besides Dirk, the novels feature his useless (and unpaid) secretary Janice Pearce and Sergeant Gilks. Gilks is like Holme’s Lestrade and Dirk’s version of Dr. Watson is Richard Macduff.

sherlock quote

one of Sherlock’s explanations of his behavior

I have read or watched most of the many versions of Sherlock Holmes available. Most recently, my wife and I watched the most recent interpretation of a modern-day Sherlock (BBC) starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Back in his college days at Cambridge University (St. Cedd’s College), Dirk discovered he was psychic. He was able to know exam questions before exams. This led to some selling of exam questions and then to Dirk’s expulsion. Dirk doesn’t actually believe in psychic abilities and insists that he has a “depressingly accurate knack for making wild assumptions”.

The Dirk Gently novels evolved from two Doctor Who serials written by Adams. I have never fallen into the Dr. Who wormhole, though I have watched it on and off.  Adams write an episode, “City of Death,” about an alien who tries to change history and erase humanity from existence.

The other cancelled serial, “Shada,” featured a Cambridge professor called Chronotis who is hundreds of years old and has been working at the college for centuries. Chronotis is a Time Lord, and his time machine is an early model TARDIS which is a trademark elements from Doctor Who.

I would guess that some readers would have problems with the novels because of their fragmented and shifting points of view. Events are out of order, or seem to be out of order.

In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, MacDuff goes to a dinner at his old college and sees his former tutor, Prof. Chronotis, perform an inexplicable magic trick. Later, the two of them discover a horse in the Professor’s lodgings, which is unable to explain. Back home, Macduff finds himself doing things that are out of character, which causes Dirk to intervene and solve the mystery. Of course, MacDuff didn’t realize there was mystery.

My attraction to the world of Dirk is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I really do agree with Gently that many things we encounter each day seem trivial and superfluous, but turn out to be important to our lives later.

It may seem incongruous that I believe that there are few, if any, “accidents” but I also don’t believe things are predetermined.

Though Adams does not go deeply into the science behind Dirk’s approach to detective work, it alludes to chaos theory, holism, quantum mechanics and the phenomena of non-locality.

When Macduff’s becomes erratic, Dirk brings in the concept of Schrödinger’s Cat.  Yes, Adams uses these complicated concepts in ways they were never intended to be used. I find that thought-provoking.

The Dirk Gently series only amounts to two and a half novels. First is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), followed by The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988).  Douglas Adams was working on a third Dirk Gently novel, The Salmon of Doubt, at his untimely death.  Adams died of a heart attack on 11 May 2001, aged 49, after resting from his regular workout at a private gym. He had unknowingly suffered a gradual narrowing of his coronary arteries. The first ten chapters of this novel, assembled from various drafts following Adams’ death, together with a memo suggesting further plot points, appeared as The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time which was published posthumously.

The last meteor shower of the year is the Ursids which began on Dec. 17 and will end on Dec. 25. It peaks on Dec. 22 and 23.

It is one of the minor meteor showers that produces up to 5-10 meteors per hour.

We can also observe at least five planets in the December sky. Mercury will be too close to the sun for most of the year and so the view is affected by sun’s glare, but by the end of the month, it will move away from the sun and will be visible in the west-southwest sky after the sunset.

Venus returned as our “evening star” in the southwestern sky at the beginning of the month. Mars is will be visible in southwestern sky. Jupiter will appear in southern sky at night and Saturn will emerge as a “morning star” in the southeastern sky visible at the daybreak.

For those of you up late tonight, like me, December 13 and 14 nights will see the peak of the Geminids meteor shower which is sometimes called the “king of the meteor showers.” It can produce up to 120 multi-colored meteors per hour when it is at its peak.

The entire window of visibility begins on December 7 and ends on the 17th, but  the anticipated peak is the night of the 13th into the morning of the 14th.

They are primarily visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere too. Sky gazers in Australia can expect to see 30-40 meteors per hour.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the “falling stars” will seem to come from the constellation Gemini above the eastern horizon. West of Gemini is the brilliant planet Jupiter which looks like a star to our unaided eyes, and just before sunrise, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury appear above the southeastern horizon.


As a person who has read a lot about time travel, and who still plans to do some time traveling one day, I was pleased to see Brian Greene’s simple explanation of traveling into the future. I have been thinking about this since I was a kid and read the Classics Illustrated comic book version of H.G. Wells The Time Machine. Those comics led me on to many classic novels and to the library to find books about topics like time travel.

When it comes to time travel, there’s a misconception  – one that most of you are probably aware of – that’s important to clarify: It is only time travel to the past that’s speculative and, as many physicists anticipate, will one day be ruled out by a deeper understanding of physics.

Time travel to the future, by contrast, is an established part of modern understanding. As I briefly describe in the video below, Einstein showed us how you can — at least in principle — travel as far into the future as you’d like.

There are “technological/engineering” obstacles to doing so — the difficulties of achieving sufficiently high speed or traveling to the edge of a black hole — but the laws of physics themselves are unequivocal: time travel to the future is possible.

This video is part of World Science U, a new free digital education platform for teaching and learning science that I signed up for recently. Check it out at

There are other videos of Greene talking about time and answering questions about things like why the way we measure the passage of time using clocks and watches is merely an attribute of time, not its essence.

I have always loved listening to Greene explain complicated theories of physics in ways that I can fully understand – until he stops talking and I have to explain it to someone else. Then, I am back to, if not square 1, at least square 3.

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