By Patrick Stephenson

tangent@postbulletin.com

Are you troubled by Terminator-esque fears of nuclear-borne Armageddon? Worried that our national political division -- right vs. left, conservative vs. democrat, rural vs. urban -- will produce another, and more costly, civil war? Afraid that our unchecked addiction to materialism is a harmful and shallow way to live, and that we shouldn't be consuming so much of that Mad Cow beef?

Time traveler John Titor will do little to assuage those fears. Titor warped into 1970s Rochester from the year 2036 and, between November 2000 and March 2001, posted information on the Internet about his temporal travels. His predictions will confirm exactly what you've been dreading: The world, as we know it, is going to end -- soon. In addition, it's likely you'll die in the process.

Where does Rochester come in? Unfortunately, our town plays only a minor part in Titor's story. The "first leg" of his journey took him to Roch, he said, because he needed to procure a computer called the IBM 5100. The model he sought, which is on local display in a museum at IBM, was the progenitor of today's desktops PCs and was required because of a function that allowed programmer access to the hidden "legacy code."

For another John Titor article, which I wrote for the August 2004 issue of Rochester Magazine, I talked with Bob Dubke, an engineer on the 5100 team, who confirmed the function's existence. Titor claimed he was chosen for the mission because his grandfather was a prominent figure on Dubke's development team. After Titor found the 5100, he promised his grandfather he would warn the following generation of the dangers they would face, if only to save a few lives. So Titor traveled ahead and delivered his warning through a rising medium: the Internet.

Oliver Williams, who operates a site (www.johntitor.com) dedicated to compiling Titor's predictions, explains their attraction: "What amazes me is the ability the posts have to leave just enough nagging doubt about this being fiction so you can never really put it to rest." His attraction to them, he says, stemmed from the fact that people had "an incredible range of responses to what he said. (They get) very upset, afraid and defensive."

Despite the inherent semi-insanity of Titor's claims (A time traveler? Posting on the Web? In order to warn us about an approaching catastrophe? Shyeah, right), the posts he contributed to several online bulletin boards during his five-month stay at the start of the 21st century were fascinating enough to sustain more than three years of further speculation regarding his origins and credibility. Among the events that led to his future world, Titor listed a civil war between our nation's urban and rural areas that would eventually extend to the rest of the earth and kill nearly 3 billion people.

The impetus for that civil conflict, Titor said, would result from the outcome of the 2004 presidential election and would escalate into a series of "Waco-type" incidents that would combine to produce all-out war.

"The year 2008," Titor said, "was a general date by which time everyone (realized) the world they thought they were living in was over." Beyond that year, war would consume the United States and culminate in 2015 with "a very short" World War III. Structurally, what remained of the United States would resolve into six parts, each of which would have its own president, and the capital would move to (eek!) Omaha, Neb.

Titor coupled his Doomsdaying with lifestyle criticism, which he used to highlight what he felt were contributing factors to our imminent downfall. Americans of our time, he said, were lazy, self-absorbed pigs who knew too little about the world and who were, therefore, docile pawns of the government. He also expressed surprise at our willingness to eat meat, especially when taken from animals whom we'd forcibly turned into cannibals. The anger Titor infused into his criticism makes him seem more real, more akin to someone whose emotions are invested in his actions and less like a hoaxer who refuses to go beyond descriptions of his time machine and explications of the destruction that would follow if his warnings went unheeded.

In conjunction with his convincing tone, Titor's descriptions of everyday life (what future citizens do for entertainment, for money, for safety) make his posts haunting. They bring his end-of-the-world scenario down into a conventional setting. Obviously, although that's a start, it isn't enough to completely sway anyone. However, Titor's depiction of his time machine, for a layperson, seem just as genuine:

"The distortion unit reaches its target destination by using very sensitive gravity sensors and atomic clocks. The basic unit of calculation is the second. So yes, in a sense you do 'dial in' a date and the computer system controls the distortion field. At maximum power, the unit I have is capable of traveling about 10 years an hour."

(That last bit sounds a little shaky, but we'll accept it.)

According to Williams, no satisfying dismissals of Titor's travel method have been issued: "I've seen one or two scientists," Williams says, "who claim John's technology is impossible, but I don't think there has been any definitive proof either way. In addition, these same scientists who are eager to discredit John are also very aggressive and appear to have some sort of negative bias toward the posts. I think their attitudes only fuel the conspiracy theories many people seem to be developing now." Williams isn't sure if Titor's story is true, but he does feel there's a possibility "we'll develop some sort of time travel …; (though) I'm not sure we'll do it by 2036."

Williams also feels that current political conditions are increasingly similar to those that, according to Titor, caused the United States' civil conflict, and ultimately World War III.

"Four years ago, John said Mad Cow would be a problem in the U.S., and it looks like it is," Williams said. "Four years ago, before the war started, John said there would be no WMDs is Iraq, and there weren't. I'm not sure it it's because John was telling the truth or we're all looking for news that fits his posts. Some people have speculated that since John shared this information with us, we could change our future. It would be a tragedy if that's true and we just sit by and watch his future happen because we think he's a crackpot."

If Titor's civil war begins this year, with successive Waco-esque incidents, it might be time to be mindful of a few of Titor's suggestions: (1) Be comfortable around firearms. Learn to shoot and use a gun. (2) Find five people within 100 miles whom you trust with your life, and stay in contact with them. (3) Eat less. (4) Consider what you would bring with you if you had to leave your home in 10 minutes and never return.

It will, after all, be the end of the world as we know it. Will you feel fine?

Patrick Stephenson is a Rochester freelancer.

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