Do we want a ‘Progress Bar’ for our lives?

I sometimes wish Life came with its own progress bar. [tweetmeme]

You know, that now familiar indicator on computer screens that shows how much of a task is done, and estimates what more remains — and for how long.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how much of our life is still left?

I’m not alone in this wish. In fact, whole cottage industries – such as astrology and palmistry – thrive on this universal curiosity to know what’s next, and what’s round the corner for ourselves.

Yet there is no known system of knowledge, or a proven technology, that can give us a customised, accurate answer. Everything that claims to do this is nothing better than a clever guess. Often, it’s not even that and only a complete rip-off…

The Undiscovered Country...
Then again, do we really want to know when we’re going to reach the end of the line (whether or not the mission is accomplished)?

Years ago, I watched a Star Trek episode that involved a world where everyone died at the same age. So all living persons knew how much time they had left, allowing them to sort their lives before it was too late.

I don’t think I’d want to live there. Not knowing how much of my life is left, and what’s in store for me in that remainder, makes living more interesting. Besides, I doubt if the chaos theory and randomness of the universe will ever allow such precise advance knowledge of anyone’s future…

As I turn 44 years today, I Googled for ‘progress bar + life’. Just for the heck and kick of it. I didn’t really expect to find an exact match, but I did. That’s the wonder of the web…

Progress Bar of Life is described as ‘a slightly morbid little web app’. It’s an innovation by an Australian geek named Andrew Ballard.

When I ran the quick and simple app, I received a slightly amusing result. Try it out, and see for yourself.

Always in a hurry?
Perhaps the inspiration came from Top Geek Steve Jobs, who is quoted on this website as saying: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”

Still in the realm of marginally useful web apps, I also discovered some weeks ago: it allows counting down or counting between any two dates. The result can be in days, hours, minutes or – for those who prefer such precision in their lives – even in seconds.

They tell me that I am exactly 16,071 days old today. Not a neat round figure as being 44 years, but there we are. (I somehow thought I’d lived for more days than that, but a quick manual calculation showed they are right.)

These counts are all very abstract anyway: our days and years are peculiar to the Earth — these measurements have no meaning beyond our home planet. Planetary rotation defines a day, while its revolution around the local star (in our case, the Sun) defines a ‘year’.

Another website, maintained by San Francisco’s excellent Exploratorium, allows me to calculate how old I would be if I lived on other planets of the Solar System where the rotation and revolution are different.

According to them, if I were to travel to the two planets closest to ours, I would be aged: 71.5 Venusian years on Venus; and 23.3 Martian years on Mars.

And if I want to melt my years away, I have to travel further to the outer planets: on Jupiter, I will be 3.7 Jovian years, and I’ll not even be 2 in Saturnian years! Wow…

On second thoughts, I think I’ll just stay on here.

2010: The Year We Make Contact…?

We apologise for the delayed arrival of the future?

The year 2010 has finally arrived, but as they often say in the imagination business, the future isn’t what it used to be.

Actually, any number of futures can be anticipated — but only one of them becomes real. Which one does depends on an infinite number of actions (and inactions)…

2010 holds a special significance for science fiction and movie buffs because both a well known novel and a movie have been set in that year by the grandmaster of near-future imagination, Arthur C Clarke.

2010: Odyssey Two is a best-selling science fiction novel by Clarke, published in January 1982. It was a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story is about seven Russians and three Americans who embark on a joint space mission to Jupiter to figure out what happened to the previous Jupiter mission nine years earlier. They start off as acquaintances and end up as friends – the author hoped that would help improve understanding between the US and the USSR.

The book was dedicated to celebrated cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Andrei Sakharov, physicist, Nobel laureate and humanist, whose outspoken views led to his internal exile in Gorky until 1986.

In fact, the spacecraft in 2010 is named Alexei Leonov. As Sir Arthur recalled a dozen years later: “I had just sent the manuscript of 2010 to my editors when I visited Russia for a most memorable and enjoyable visit. In between toasts at Leonov’s apartment, I revealed that most of the action in my novel was taking place on board the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. A delighted Leonov quipped: ‘Then it must be a good ship.'”

The novel was adapted as a movie by Peter Hyams and released in 1984. Its promotional title was 2010: The Year We Make Contact! (although this never appears in the film itself.) Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel and the screenplay were not written simultaneously, and there are significant differences between the two. According to the Wikipedia, the film was only a moderate success, disappointing many critics as well as viewers.

If nothing else, the book and movie of 2010 remind us how difficult it is to write near-future stories — most of them are completely overtaken by reality.

Several elements in 2010 have become anachronistic in the years following their original release. The most striking is the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Union (which ceased to exist in 1991).

As Sir Arthur said in an interview in May 2005: “I’ve been more interested in the medium to long-term prospects for humanity, rather than in near-term developments. Politics and economics are so unpredictable that it’s practically impossible to make geopolitical forecasts with any degree of certainty.”

Alexei Leonov (left) and Arthur C Clarke at their last encounter in Colombo, 16 Dec 2007
Interestingly, he had peppered the novel with names of various Soviet dissidents, including physicists Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, human-rights activists Mykola Rudenko and Anatoly Marchenko, Russian Orthodox activist Gleb Yakunin, among others. That was the author’s not-so-subtle jibe at the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he was both admired and respected in the country that pioneered humanity’s entry into space.

At first, this had somehow gone unnoticed by the Soviet censors. The Russian language youth magazine Tekhnika Molodezhy began serialising 2010: Odyssey Two. Halfway through the story, the serialisation was abruptly stopped. The Central Committee then summoned Cosmonaut Leonov to ask why in the novel the crew of the spaceship Alexei Leonov consisted of Soviet dissidents. (Clearly, that was another regime that couldn’t discern between fictional and real worlds — and tried, in vain, to rule over both.)

That’s when Leonov, Hero of the Soviet Union and one of its most decorated citizens, told off the Central Committee: “You aren’t worth the nail on Arthur C. Clarke’s little finger.” This was revealed years later in Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race, co-authored by Alexei Leonov and American astronaut David Scott (Simon and Schuster, 2004).

As Sir Arthur – a long standing friend of Leonov – remarked in a review of their book, Leonov was “perhaps the only man in the USSR who could have got away with that kind of remark”.

Well, that 2010 is finally here — even though Sakharov and Clarke never lived to see it, Leonov is very much with us. We are not yet heading to Jupiter, but at least the Cold War is now history…

Who can predict what surprises await us as the real 2010 unfolds?