simulated_universe.jpgLet’s see how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Just a reworded movie quote sure, but the context is perhaps more applicable to real life than we normally assume. Somehow the brief mention of the Cellular Automata (CA) in a previous post sparked an extensive digital expedition on the subject.

I guess it beats watching television, which, as a side-note, I stopped doing about 6 months ago, highly recommended. What inspired me to research further is the apparent elegance of CA systems, the almost instinctive notion that these could be a key element of something bigger. Or maybe just some kind of occupational obsession, that is possible too.

Anyway, first stop on my journey was Konrad Zuse, a German computer science pioneer who built the first computer, the Z3, completed in 1941. I did not know much about him but calling Zuse a genius and visionary is probably apt. Ironically the German government decided further development of the machine, an electronic successor to the Z3, to be “strategically unimportant”…In his book Calculating Space Zuse hypothesized that the Universe itself could be a deterministic computational structure, a CA, its physical laws discrete. These theories were later expanded upon by Edward Fredkin, who in turn introduced the term digital physics, although later he preferred the use the term digital philosophy.

That phrase got me to a paper by philosophy professor Nick Bostrom, called Are you living in a computer simulation? Thought provoking is an understatement, although probably more a mental exercise than anything else. Also in that category and an entertaining read, The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbott (public domain).

So let’s get back to hard science, and the ultimate kicker of the journey. Check out the work of particle physics professor Dr. James Gates Jr., specializing in super-string and super-symmetry theories. Admittedly I definitely hit the boundaries of my understanding here, light reading it is not. So from an interview:

Gates: “How could we discover whether we live inside a Matrix? One answer might be ‘Try to detect the presence of codes in the laws that describe physics.’” And this is precisely what he has done. Specifically, within the equations of super-symmetry he has found, quite unexpectedly, what are called “doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes. “This unsuspected connection suggests that these codes may be ubiquitous in nature, and could even be embedded in the essence of reality. If this is the case, we might have something in common with the Matrix science-fiction films, which depict a world where everything human being’s experience is the product of a virtual-reality-generating computer network.” Lastly, all of this would also imply a Creator. Mind blown.

KIC 8462852

Storm, The Von Neumann-Machine (1993)

KIC 8462852, a star with a name a bookkeeper would come up with, has scientists baffled. Data sent back from the Kepler Space Telescope, specifically launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, was confusing. The star, nicknamed the WTF-star (“Where’s The Flux”…), exhibited strange light fluctuations, up to the point that even SETI got involved and started looking for radio emissions. They found none thus far by the way.

Several hypothesis have been brought to the table, from comet swarms, interstellar dust to asteroid fields. None were fully satisfactory. Apparently the scientific community had to work up the courage to finally propose a fringe possibility, alien activity. Perhaps a Dyson sphere, a device that encapsulates a star, and harvests most of its energy. Of course this would indicate an alien race so advanced that our best hope is that they never contact us.

When I was reading up on Dyson, I learned he also did some thought experiments on self replicating systems, something I first read about when The Game of Life (Conway) was featured in a school project. While as a concept, the 2-state 2-dimensional cellular automaton was simple enough, as a programming assignment it proved challenging (but fun). The idea of non-biological self replicating machines was first explored by Von Neumann, and the name Von Neumann machines is sometimes used as a general label. So if not a Dyson sphere messing with KICs light, then maybe a Von Neumann machine, activated millennia ago. And to spice things up, these machines can go rogue too (well, at least in science fiction).

Break the Illusion

0000000000000000sY1qzcgluo1_1280They Live is probably not the first movie someone will come up with when discussing the works of John Carpenter. It is certainly not his best or most successful entry but interesting nonetheless. Thematically it shares common ground with acknowledged modern sci-fi classics The Matrix (1999) and Dark City (1998, arguably the better movie).

While humanity is reduced to obedient slaves or expendable resources, one man wakes up and gets a step closer to the truth. Of course brain-dead consumerism was blasted even earlier in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but that movie misses the protagonist who gains sudden insight and understanding.

It is tempting to think that we live in a time where said insight is perhaps not only already gained by some but also slowly gathering critical mass. Without venturing to far into the Fringe, there is an increasing amount of healthy skepticism towards the mass-media. Up to the point where everything they pump out is seen as nothing more than a greedy time devouring distraction, aimed at nothing other than control. “Bread and Circuses”, to appease and manipulate the voters. I do not know if we are getting closer to gaining real insight and understanding. But an almost unlimited access to independent information sources allows us to investigate, think for ourselves and possibly break the illusion. If there is one.

Byrd’s 2nd Antarctic Expedition (1933 – 1935)

KnipselBlogMy interest in Antarctica was originally ignited by the flat earth debate where it plays a critical role in most of the theories. The topic experienced quite a revival on the internet since May 2015. And a few days ago even main stream media (in the UK) reported about the phenomenon (Flat-Earthers are Back).

Leaving the fringe, I found an interesting video on YouTube, about Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition. What makes this video special compared to regular stock footage is the introduction and narration by Dr. Harold Borns, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

Fringe: Moon Missions

fd72b6953ba0As suggested in the previous post, do we really get better at spotting fakes? With mainstream mass media slowly but surely losing its monopoly on information distribution (and subsequent opinion forming), the availability of quality independent news sources and more generally the unprecedented accessibility of information to any person on Earth (with an internet connection…), maybe we are becoming less gullible and more inclined to research and think for ourselves. As stated in the Welcome post, keeping an open mind is one of the leading ideas behind this blog. Even if that leads to the fringes of the internet.

When the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon I was alive but too young to remember anything about it. I am sure though we watched the incredible images of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon and to this day I am still fascinated with space-travel and the possibilities it may offer. Watching the footage again proved to be an interesting experience.

Strangely, the feat seemed even more impressive, almost to the point that suspension of disbelief was required, considering the technology used back then and the fact that man never went higher than about 300 miles after 1972 (the International Space Station is between 205 and 270 miles).

Let’s not get into the whole conspiracy thing or the technical minutiae of the matter, let’s look at the human factor. If you watch videos of the moon walks the astronauts give the distinct impression of being rather relaxed, sometimes joking or goofing around, jumping, stumbling and in later missions practically joyriding the buggy. Think about this for a moment.

You are in a hostile environment where only your suit protects you from extreme heat, cold, radiation and of course the vacuum of space. Or summarized, certain death. Any damage to your suit can be fatal. Will you fool around and have a good time? Sure, the astronauts were very courageous guys, they had the right stuff, but still.

With that in mind, view the Apollo 11 press conference. A successful heroic mission into uncharted territory, perhaps the most astounding human achievement in the history of mankind, possibly resembling a religious experience when looking upon the fragile blue planet, alone in the vast black void of space. And now, fortunately, safe and back on Earth!

You expect boundless enthusiasm, pride and joy. Instead Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins appear very nervous and tense, almost fearful, tightly on script and not happy at all. To the present day observer, the behavior shown in both instances (moonwalk and press conference) does not seem to match the occasion, in fact, amazingly, when switched it makes more sense. Remarkable, and one can (at least somewhat) understand how this feeds into all kinds of (conspiracy) theories.

Lovecraft and the movies

the-thing-05My review of the Lovecraft audio-books narrated by Wayne June still needs work. Instead, since I am already invested in the subject and related ones, let’s take a look at the influence Lovecraft had and still has on movies.

Fairly recently it was attempted to bring At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen, in 3D no less (ugh), by Guillermo del Toro. A relatively large budget was deemed necessary, partly for recreating 30’s Antarctica, partly for convincing CGI. As a side note, those two terms seem to become more and more mutually exclusive. Maybe we get better at spotting fakes, well at least in movies.

Back to del Toro, there were big rating issues, with the studio insisting on a PG-13. Also the estimated return on investment was not satisfactory or not enough of a sure thing, so the project was put on ice indefinitely. Although I was curious about the end result, not a bad thing necessarily, since I do not think we need a CGI infested and toned down interpretation. And maybe the emphasis should not be on visualizing the cosmic horrors.

Although purposefully vague in general, Lovecraft’s descriptions sometimes seem exhausting in detail. But these just enable the reader (or listener) to slowly create a horrific image in their head. A very personal process that can not be emulated by plastic computer graphics. In my opinion a proper Lovecraft movie should focus on subtly building up an atmosphere, brooding, menacing, while racking up the suspense slowly, eventually culminating in a downbeat ending. So probably not a blockbuster then.

If you search for movies inspired by Lovecraft that actually got made, you will find many low to medium budget efforts, made by enthusiasts, and often situated in the realms of schlock horror. Ascending these is one of my personal favorites, John Carpenters remake of The Thing from 1982. Officially based on the novella Who Goes There (1938) by John W. Campbell and actually very faithful to it. But I like to think that Carpenter was or is also influenced by Lovecraft’s work in general (most obvious example, In The Mouth of Madness, 1995).

Also keep in mind that At the Mountains of Madness was originally written in 1931 and published in 1936, so perhaps Campbell took Lovecraft’s story into account when creating his novella. Yes, this is pure speculation of course. At the time The Thing was absolutely vilified by reviewers and basically a commercial flop, competing with E.T. The gross-out special effects were especially disliked. All mechanical and physical, using props, animatronics, models, pyrotechnics and make-up, they are still considered to be of truly exceptional quality today however. And fortunately Carpenter’s The Thing has seen a reevaluation over the past decades. I will have to admit that the strong special effects can be a turn off for some but the movie is absolutely masterful in creating atmosphere and tension, paranoia and loneliness become almost tangible, and it features a satisfyingly ambiguous finale.

By the way, did you know that The Thing is annually viewed by members of the winter crew at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during the first evening of winter? (Wikipedia).

Audio-book: Ashes of the Unspeakable


If you have not yet read The Borrowed World just a heads up: this review will contain light spoilers on the first book of the series.

In The Borrowed World we followed Jim and his group of coworkers as they desperately tried to get home after the nation was crippled by a terrorist attack. Jim, a serious prepper, had to use all his knowledge (and gear) to navigate the disintegrating world, where dangers lurked behind every corner and violence became the preferred method of communication. Not all of Jim’s colleagues were that impressed though and some chose to stay behind and hope that the government sorts things out. For Alice and Rebecca this translated into waiting to be transported to a FEMA camp.

While Jim’s trek is still very important, it leaves center stage and Ashes of the Unspeakable gives other strands of the story more room. The struggles of Jim’s wife Ellen and their kids and the sobering adventures of Alice and Rebecca get in-depth attention. A few new major characters are introduced. Fortunately these segments are just as engrossing and entertaining as Jim’s hike.

Most characters continue taking logical decisions and although luck plays a big role sometimes (just as in real life) everything stays relatively plausible. Real preppers may even get their notebook out, as there are a few genuinely useful tips and tricks to be found.

A criticism of the first book, the somewhat flat characters lacking detail and without much development still stands though. Some of the characters do develop a bit, but they only change into a light version of Jim. Perhaps this transformation is necessary to survive in the brutal post apocalyptic world, so in context it makes sense I guess. Even though the perspective switches during the story, it appears as if the book was written by prepper Jim, his world view projected on all characters and his obsession with gear, guns and being prepared permeating every dialogue and description.

Why the terrorist attack is so devastating and the collapse so complete, it is touched upon but the reasoning feels contrived. It is probably better to stick with the it-is-how-it-is approach of the first book and just focus on dealing with the given situation and keep the roller-coaster, eh rolling. The (not very original) argument that society is only held together by a very thin layer of veneer, under which tribal or even animal like behavior is hidden sounds true though and is scary enough. All that said, Ashes of the Unspeakable is an entertaining and action packed, sometimes horrific tale of survival against the odds. For preppers, written by a prepper (speculation on my part).

Finally, I found the narration by Kevin Pierce to be good, dry as it should be. In dialogues Pierce does not really do voices as such, but subtly changes the diction a bit. On Amazon you can always listen to a sample to see if you like it.

Amazon Audible version.

Listening time: 9 hours, 2 minutes.