Rabbit-Hole

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.

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KIC 8462852

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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).

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

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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.

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.

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.