Chronovisor [] Secrets of the City, By Patrick Stephenson

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Snow Fire Watches post Oct 22 2004, 03:13 PM
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Secrets of the City

A sampling

Time traveler most likely to be spotted in Rochester

By Patrick Stephenson

In November 2000, messages from a self-proclaimed time traveler, who called himself John Titor, began to appear on Internet discussion boards. Despite the surreal nature of Titor's story, the intelligence and lucidity implicit within his messages were, to many, convincing. Moreover, his claims held up under questioning from many Internet skeptics. The story soon became the stuff of Internet legend.

Titor claimed he'd traveled from 2036, a time of disrepair in the wake of a nuclear conflict that had killed three billion people worldwide, and that had resulted from an American civil war between rural and city dwellers. To provide proof of his predictions and claims, Titor gave exacting descriptions of the technology that had allowed him to move backward in time, and uploaded photos of the temporal components he'd installed into, of all vehicles, a 1967 Chevrolet.

However, warning of future events, and becoming a Cassandra, were not among Titor's foremost objectives. He felt that the destruction he'd predicted was inevitable. His real mission, he said, had been to travel to Rochester, Minnesota in 1975 and make contact with his grandfather, an engineer on the team in charge of developing a computer called the IBM 5100, which Titor needed to acquire. He claimed the 5100's future value came from an ability that hadn't been revealed by IBM upon its release, and that this then unknown function was required by scientists in Titor's time to resolve a computer problem they'd encountered.

Illustration by Jeffrey Johnson
According to Bob Dubke, the second engineer on IBM's 5100 team in Rochester (who now co-owns a locally-based company called eXport Ventures Corp. and also works for Edina Realty), that secret function was his contribution to the design of the computer. The function, which IBM suppressed because of worries about how their competition might use it, was an interface between the assembly code surrounding the computer's ROM exterior, and the 360 emulator hidden beneath it. (IBM declined to comment for this story.) The 5100's emulator gave programmers access to the functions of the monstrous, and much less portable machines, that IBM had produced during the 1960s. An imprint of a hook on the outside of the 5100 symbolized the ability of Dubke's interface to drop into what Titor called "legacy code," and scoop out any necessary operating instructions.

A hook is an appropriate symbol for Titor's story. His posts ended in March 2001, after his supposed return to the future. In the wake of his disappearance, the claims he'd made about the 5100 became the starting point from which all manner of Internet kooks conducted searches for proof of his claims. Unlike his vague predictions of future doom, the information he'd relayed about the 5100 was concrete, and filled with statements that readers could research. It's a surprise, then, that Dubke hadn't heard about the Titor debacle until we contacted him in July.

Period documentation Dubke provided calls the computer a "dramatic step forward," and reveals that the 5100 team were justifiably excited about their project's release. According to Dubke, they'd been set free from bureaucratic controls, and so had worked smoothly and efficiently on the 5100's design. The end result was a computer that, though antiquated in comparison to current technology, was an engineering marvel. Bulky but functional. When Dubke first heard about John Titor, his main question was not of whether John Titor was a time traveler, ("I'm not a ‘Star Trek' watcher," he says, "or into building fantasies") but of who among his team had the right sense of humor to orchestrate the furor created by Titor's posts.

"Somebody is trying to tickle somebody else," Dubke says. In response to our inquiries, he mentally reviewed the list of engineers with whom he'd spent turbulent and fun times at IBM. One candidate who emerged, a man with a "caustic" sense of humor, seemed to Dubke to be the most likely jokester. However, as he reviewed Titor's posts, he dismissed them as being "too simple" to be the product of any of his friends, and his eyes stumbled over the sight of the phrase "legacy code," which, he says, no members of the 5100 team would ever use. He concludes that Titor's 5100 material was merely "derived from information available on the Internet."

Despite skepticism, online debate over Titor continues to this day, three years after his redeparture for the future. And we may never know if he time-traveled to Rochester. But maybe more importantly, the roots of the civil conflict that eventually turned nuclear will soon take hold, and will be caused by an upcoming event at year's end, he warned, most likely the presidential election. By 2008, said Titor, there won't be any question about whether we're at war, but he refused to provide specifics. "How can you possibly criticize me for any conflict that comes to you?" Titor asked. "I watch every day what you're doing as a society. While you sit by and watch your Constitution being torn away from you, you willfully eat poisoned food, buy manufactured products no one needs and turn an uncaring eye away from millions of people suffering and dying all around you.

"Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret. No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that."

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