Antarctica or Mars

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In an earlier post I mentioned Lovecraft’s fascination with Antarctica, as it was one of the great unknowns on the planet. And today it still is, due to the extremely hostile conditions (or according to some, the Antarctic treaty). Recently the journal Geology ran an article about Princess Elizabeth Land on the west ice shelf, where scientists found a gigantic canyon system hidden beneath the ice. At roughly twice the size of the Grand Canyon, this would be the largest on Earth. Added to that, the system may be connected to a subglacial freshwater lake of immense proportions. Two thoughts entered my mind when I read about this. One, I like the idea that our planet still occasionally manages to throw up a smokescreen of mystery in these times, where science seems to have everything catalogued and explained. Two, perhaps the billions of dollars needed for getting to Mars (yeah, right) can be better spent elsewhere.

Reboot

imageTrust no one. Once exclusively the motto of a diagnosed paranoid, at present possibly a little bit more accepted as a legitimate worldview. The internet has facilitated not only the rise of independent news sources but also their fringe spin offs where conspiracy theories run rampant. And to spice things up, sometimes these theories actually have some truth in them. People love it and for the curious and open minded among them it is a treasure trove. Very valuable as well if you are Chris Carter and looking for material, so perhaps the time is right for an X-Files reboot. After watching the first episode some 23 years ago (doesn’t that make you feel ancient…) I was hooked. The subject matter and of course the chemistry between Mulder and Scully made the show top notch. Well at least until they lost the plot and it finally all fell apart. The new mini series (6 episodes) will premiere on January 24. The first reviews are already in and not promising, but I Want To Believe.

H.P. Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. “, The Call of the Cthulhu (1928) by H.P. Lovecraft.HPL-Smiling! Today, Lovecraft is considered to be one of the most influential writers in the realms of (weird) science-fiction and otherworldly horror. Elements of so called Lovecraftian horror can be found in numerous books, movies, computer games and more. In his days however he had to make ends meet (barely) by publishing his stories in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. Back then, Lovecraft was probably only held in high regard within his small circle of friends with whom he corresponded almost continuously. Biographer L. Sprague de Camp estimates Lovecraft wrote nearly 100.000 letters during his lifetime.weird_tales_1923 The mentioned inability to correlate all the contents of the world (or universe) was maybe something Lovecraft himself considered merciful (or wished to be true). While science tried its hardest to prove otherwise and was taking huge leaps, he remained skeptical of it’s discoveries and frightful of the new horizons. After all, besides knowledge science also did expand the “unknown”.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.“, from the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, first published in 1927.

Being an atheist, Lovecraft did however subscribe to the idea that man was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, just as science suggested, as opposed to man being special and created with a purpose. This is a recurring theme in his work, coupled with the idea that the search for knowledge inevitably will end in misfortune or disaster. With neither religion or science offering any direction or comfort Lovecraft had little else to put faith in and some call him a nihilist. Other labels are used, mainly focused on his less than politically correct opinions and world view (measured by today’s standards).

With all that said, I enjoyed his stories immensely and they played an important role when I was learning English at school. Later I discovered that modern writers and critics actually consider Lovecraft’s work a prime example of bad writing…9041977._SX540_The carefully structured and long sentences, rich in adjectives and descriptions, to me they always appeared to be some kind of sculpture or Escher lithograph made out of words. Recently I found the works of Lovecraft on Audible, marvelously narrated by Wayne June. A review will follow later, probably focusing on At the Mountains of Madness, about a doomed expedition into Antarctica. The continent was, as a symbol of the “unknown”, one of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascinations.

Space Travel and the Van Allen Radiation Belt

The Van Allen Radiation Belts are often mentioned in space-travel related discussions on the internet. Two doughnut shaped rings of pure death surround the earth and make space travel impractical or impossible. The inner belt is situated from 400 to 6.000 miles above the earth, the outer one extends from 8.000 to 36.000 miles. The belts contain charged particles that loop around the Earth at high speeds. The deadliness varies but on the top end of the scale the particles have enough energy to penetrate 14mm of lead. It was actually Greek physicist Nicholas Constantine Christofilos who was one of the first to explore the possibility of trapping charged particles. He later was one of the driving forces behind Operation Argus (1958).

Operation ARGUS was the designation given to the three high-altitude nuclear test shots conducted by the United States in the South Atlantic Ocean from August 27 to September 10, 1958. The ARGUS shots were conducted to test the Christofilos theory, which argued that high-altitude nuclear detonations would create a radiation belt in the upper regions of the Earth’s atmosphere. It was theorized that the radiation belt would have military implications, including degradation of radio and radar transmissions, damage or destruction of the arming and fuzing mechanisms of ICBM warheads, and endangering the crews of orbiting space vehicles that might enter the belt.

So back then shooting nukes in the sky and trying to create a radiation or electron belt in the upper parts of the atmosphere was thought to be a pretty good idea, of tactical value in case of war, for example to disable enemy satellites. Of special interest is the location chosen for Argus, about a 1.000 miles southwest of Cape Town.article-0-1E3B10F600000578-257_634x208This is an area in range of the so called South Atlantic Anomaly, where the inner Van Allen belt is closest to Earth, as low as 125 miles from the surface. The borders and shape of this Bermuda Triangle of Space are not static, the anomaly is actually moving and expanding slowly. It is speculated that the weakening of the Earths geomagnetic field may be a contributing factor. Interesting to note: the ISS required extra shielding to be able to safely pass through the anomaly. About 200 satellites (2010) face the problem of passing through the Anomaly, some programmed to shut down sensitive equipment for the duration of the passage.

KnipselNASA
Nasa Engineer talks about the Van Allen Belts

Our understanding of the belts and their function is still developing. Recently it was discovered that the belts, interacting with the Earths plasma-sphere, function as a barrier to high speed electrons. So all things considered, it is probably something we do not want to mess with too much. Van Allen himself  responded to questions about the belt and the consequences for space-travel, and more specifically a FOX TV show that posed the NASA Moon Missions were a hoax:

“The radiation belts of the Earth do, indeed, pose important constraints on the safety of human space flight. The very energetic (tens to hundreds of MeV) protons in the inner radiation belt are the most dangerous and most difficult to shield against. Specifically, prolonged flights (i.e., ones of many months’ duration) of humans or other animals in orbits about the Earth must be conducted at altitudes less than about 250 miles in order to avoid significant radiation exposure.

A person in the cabin of a space shuttle in a circular equatorial orbit in the most intense region of the inner radiation belt, at an altitude of about 1000 miles, would be subjected to a fatal dosage of radiation in about one week.  However, the outbound and inbound trajectories of the Apollo spacecraft cut through the outer portions of the inner belt and because of their high speed spent only about 15 minutes in traversing the region and less than 2 hours in traversing the much less penetrating radiation in the outer radiation belt.

The resulting radiation exposure for the round trip was less than 1% of a fatal dosage – a very minor risk among the far greater other risks of such flights. I made such estimates in the early 1960s and so informed NASA engineers who were planning the Apollo flights. These estimates are still reliable. The recent Fox TV show, which I saw, is an ingenious and entertaining assemblage of nonsense. The claim that radiation exposure during the Apollo missions would have been fatal to the astronauts is only one example of such nonsense.”

So not fully understood and dangerous but also possibly instrumental in keeping Earth safe from deadly cosmic influences. Not recommended in case of a prolonged visit but also not a barrier that can not be passed. Otherwise we could not have gone to the Moon, right? And with 60´s technology to boot! But that is another topic, which I will leave for a later post.

 

On the brink of another Great Depression?

In the last week, the stock market experienced one of the worst starts of a year ever. In China the stock trade circuit breaker was triggered twice in just four days. After that emergency shutdown all trade is suspended for the rest of the day. On Thursday the 7th of Januari, actual trade was limited to 15 minutes. The imminent collapse has been predicted on a lot of the independent news channels.

Two of the most obvious warning signs all those sources mention, namely consistent downward pressure on the oil price and a significant slow down in China, both are a reality right now. It was already obvious that the double digit growth figures China has shown for some time were completely unsustainable. After the 2008 collapse much faith was put in lowering interest, increasing debt and government stimulation initiatives to increase demand and promote spending.

In China local government could make ends meet by selling local farmland and making it available for urban development. Once an investment company acquires the land rights, they are to build on it immediately. One or more buildings must be present within two years. They can not just wait for a few years, for instance, until the moment there is an actual housing demand in that area…This is one of the reasons behind the so called Chinese ghost towns (a bit of a misnomer since these towns were never inhabited in the first place).

Meanwhile the all important Chinese manufacturing sector keeps shrinking and the year-over-year change in global exports is at the second lowest level since 1958. Maybe it is time to buckle up.

Mass media on the path to extinction?

Gone are the days when only a few large mass media institutions dominated (and controlled) the information flow to the general population. Keeping certain facts hidden, blatantly coloring events or presenting them heavily opinionated was pretty easy. The morning paper and evening news was all you got, and if it was not mentioned there, it simply did not happen.

This set up gave some stakeholders (large corporations, the government, powerful lobbyist groups) an unhealthy level of control and a way to direct the opinion of the public. The arrival of The Internet did not change this immediately, but it was the beginning of the end for traditional mass media as an undisputed monopolist in news gathering and information distribution. Some tried to introduce clumsy on-line services, often behind a pay wall. Most of these initiatives failed miserably.

Of course the Internet still had a long way to go before it could replace the mainstream mass media as a day-to-day information source. It had to become cheaper, it needed to be a common utility like electricity, water and gas, something that someone takes for granted. Better software and publishing tools gave the final push. Today newspapers are basically on the path to extinction. The same can be said for the traditional journalist.

There are 2 billion smartphone users worldwide, and anyone can report news, illustrated with photos or videos, on a YouTube channel or a blog. Of course the quality will vary greatly and some channels are just as opinionated as the mass media (or even more so).

Most importantly though, the earlier mentioned stakeholders have lost their tight grip on information, their control over opinion and their power to keep things hidden. Events are documented while they happen or widely scrutinized after the fact, reducing the chance of keeping things from the public. Older stories that were once covered up, resurface. For the average citizen it is much easier to get an unbiased report, or at least two sides of the story, and form an opionion on the basis of that, instead of being told what to think or steered in the desired direction. And with the genie out of the bottle, I do not see this changing anytime soon.

Audio-book: The Borrowed World

25470417The Borrowed World from Franklin Horton depicts a post apocalyptic scenario, where the USA is dealt a crippling blow by ISIS terrorists. Jim Powell and his co-workers were en route, on a business trip, and now find themselves stranded hundreds of miles from home. Their mission: to get back to their loved ones as soon as possible. That is the core of the book, the terrorist attack merely provides the necessary circumstances and is not dealt with in great detail, nor very original for that matter.

The disastrous change from fully functioning society (well, sort of) to rampant chaos is abrupt and condensed but understandable considering the focus of the book. The narrative alternates between Jim and his wife Ellen and their kids, who have their own problems to deal with. I would say, at least in this first book (yes, The Borrowed World is the first in a series), the trek Jim and his colleagues have to make gets center stage. Jim is a guy who takes his prepping seriously.

Paranoid, some of his co-workers are convinced at first. Jim prefers to call himself “prepared”. And of course the events that unfold will prove just that. Most of the time Jim is not very likable (and this may be a problem for some readers/listeners), a bit of a blunt hard-ass, with little apparent concern for those who do not share his world view. That said, if you found yourself in a survival situation you probably, no definitely want to be in Jim’s group.

After flipping the switch, from organised world to anarchic chaos, the story needs some time to gather momentum. Once gained it picks up pace significantly and escalates into scenes of ever increasing violence and horror. Amidst all this the group takes rational decisions (mostly) and deals with dangers in a coherent, logical and believable way. Jim works for a government agency and he and his colleagues seem to be fully aware of the governments helplessness in times of real crisis.

There is some social commentary to be found in The Borrowed World (gun control and other issues) but since I am not from the US, I know too little about these debates to fully appreciate the hints.

Apart from Jim, the characters are somewhat 2-dimensional and lack details. In this first book it helps to keep a tight focus and get things rolling, but it is a valid criticism. Perhaps this issue is addressed in the following parts of the series. Other than that The Borrowed World sometimes spends a good amount of time describing the gear: weapons, ammunition, gadgets, food, boots and so on. A preppers delight and from the perspective of Jim, understandable. You must be enjoying this whole situation, one of his colleagues mentions. Jim denies this, but i am not so sure.

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.

Conclusion: A very entertaining ride, if you like post-apocalyptic tales. I am very much looking forward to listening to volume 2, Ashes of The Unspeakable.

Amazon Audible version.

Listening time: 7 hours, 54 minutes.