Friday, August 9, 2013

non-ubiquitously omniversal, the series

Looking around at our increasingly technical world with four years of formal computer science education and 6 years of industry experience as a software engineer, I am having some trouble watching old episodes of star trek.  

They have access to incredibly powerful technologies.  They can travel faster than the speed of light.  Force fields, inertial dampeners, anti gravity FTL communication channels, transportation, who cares about the laws of physics.  Perhaps their understanding of physics is just much greater than our own.  They're not violating the rules of reality, they're just playing by a much better understanding of those rules.  However, if that's the case, then were's Facebook?

Seriously.  Well, perhaps you say that there' so advanced they no longer *have* Facebook, ha ha.  But then where're the IDevices™.  I'm not sure that the data pads you sometimes see people carrying around count either.  They're kind of clunky.  And you routinely see them piled up on desks.  Seriously dude, I think one pad plus some 30" monitors would do it.  Or what about this.  Junior officer announces a ship uncloaking.  Long pause.  A console explodes violently (maybe you shouldn't put a high power cable behind every monitor … seriously you would think they fix that after the first time someone dies due to monitor explosion).  Raise the shields!  How about you just program the computer to raise the shields automatically whenever a ship de-cloaks.  Ta da, thank me later.  Everyone seems to have these passwords that are like three letters long … which are occasionally defeated by tape recorders.  There was that one episode where Data takes over the entire Enterprise because he can mimic Picard's voice.  Everyone just has to sit around and is completely helpless for the rest of the episode.  How about some PGP guys.  And that's another thing.  It seems like there's way too many plot points were some simple crypto would have prevented everything.  Or there's too much crypto being broken at the drop of a hat.  But whenever the plot needs something to be secret they just duck into an empty room or piggy back data on a modulated inverse tachyon beam.  Like as long as no one paying attention you're secure.  Seriously, today I could buy 20 raspberry pis, glue a microphone on them, and *bam* I can bug a large facility for under $1000.  And as far covert subspace channels go.  An introductory book on data mining and a small fleet of very small probes and no one's ever sending anything covertly ever again.

The crypto / covert dynamic is kind of weird though, right?  Like what reality is it where crypto is trivial to just crack every other day.  But covert channels is the defacto way to get real work done.  Hmm.

Well, in a universe where you have nearly infinite computer processing power, a lot of crypto is going to be worthless.  I mean crypto works because either you have some math problem that would take too long to solve the hard way or because it would take too long to brute force the key.  That all falls away with infinite processing power.  So crypto is worthless, but then why don't they have drones everywhere constantly monitoring the background radiation levels and automatically throwing the result into some sort of digital processing algorithm.  Heck you could even data mine the signals against a giant database so you automatically adapt to new strategies.  That should get rid of any covert channels.  No sneaky stuff for that universe.  Maybe they're too busy to do it.  Like it would be too much work … although I could probably bang something out in python pretty quickly.  Like … maybe they don't have python.  All of that might be a huge pain in the neck if all you had was assembly … err … they do talk about subroutines an awful lot.  And no one ever mentions higher order functions or even modules.

It sounds suspiciously like in the star trek universe, no one ever discovered lambda calculus.  Or any other higher level maths that would lead to the development of better software engineering techniques.  They still invented computers, but they're programming them in the most basic way possible.  

Why wasn't the math we know about today discovered?  Well it was probably because all of the mathematicians were busy with the discovery of whatever magical physics defying stuff that allows them to travel faster than light and generate gravity.  This is actually the premise of a short story called "The Road Not Taken"[1].  Basically, aliens invade Earth, but they do it with flint lock pistols and cannons.  Turns out that the secret to faster than light travel is really simple, but it's totally nonsensical.  So once a race discovers it science can't explain it well and proceeds to collapse.  Whatever technological level you were at when you discover FTL is where your civilization stays.

So it looks like Philip Wadler's Omniversal programming language isn't as ubiquitous as he hoped.  And I guess that sort of makes sense.  Who wants to compute lambda terms or find out how to decrement natural numbers when you could play with infinite computation power and travel to the other side of the universe.  Heck, most people would be more than happy to just sit around in the holodeck.  

Although, that also means that if a copy of SICP or the Lisp User Manual shows up in the star trek universe, then much havoc would be wrought.

Hm.  Kind of like the Death Note anime.  Only instead of bored Japanese death gods you would have ghost John McCarthy following around some sort of intelligent but fatally overly idealistic and arrogant star fleet cadet.  

... that ... that actually sounds like it would make for some compelling tv.

[1] -

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