Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Expanse of Cosmic Horror

(This blog article is a mash up of two long social media posts I made some time ago, so it might seem a little fragmented and repetitive, even though I've tried to edit it a little.)

The late H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft [1890-1937] is credited with inventing the genre of cosmic horror - one of my favorite genres in either print or visual media. I don't classify his iconic creation Cthulhu as comic horror. That gigantic octopus-headed other-worldly creature that lies dreaming deep under the sea in the impossibly ancient city of R'lyeh is way too anthropomorphic. Cthulhu is horrifying, sure, but cosmic horror is all about reality-bending stuff that comes from non-earthly realms and virtually defies description. Cosmic horrors aren't evil; they are indifferent, as uncaring about their impacts on us puny humans as a lawn mower is to ant hills. Cosmic horrors drive humans mad because of our inability to perceive and process their reality.

Propnomicon Miskatonic Badge Edit

My affection for cosmic horror is one of the reasons my alter ego goes to science fiction conventions wearing pins or badges that identify him as a faculty member at Miskatonic University - that fictional university in an equally fictional Arkham County, Massachusetts situated on the banks of the still fictional Miskatonic River, where several Lovecraft stories take place.

(And in case you're wondering, there is absolutely no excuse for the terrible racism evident in some of H. P. Lovecraft's writing. In this respect he was wrong and ignorant, even for the time in which he lived and wrote, and that part of his work is repugnant and not to be admired. But I learned long ago that if I only love those who are perfect, I will come to love no one. So I celebrate his other work while decrying that part of his milieu.)

Cosmic horror is one of the reasons that, with some exceptions, I can't quite enjoy reading science fiction that casually features faster than light (FTL) travel or communication. (I'm just a little more forgiving of visual media in this respect, but not much.) My dilettante reading of physics leads me to interpret FTL as creating circumstances that would bend or break our very perception of reality, eliminating our ability to agree on basic cause and effect. It would lead to violations of the basic laws of physics - which is perhaps part of the definition of cosmic horror.

Here are some media - not intended in any way to be comprehensive - that I think fits the description of cosmic horror.

  • John Carpenter's movie The Thing and John W. Campbell's novella "The Thing From Another World" on which it is based, is by far the best known example. (The Carpenter movie is also a great example of another horror genre, body horror).
  • The movie Alien (but not so much the terrific sequel Aliens) shoots for a bit of cosmic horror, with an alien which could easily have been right out of Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos", although it has the same anthropomorphic flaw as Cthulhu itself. [added 2023-06-19]
  • The movie Event Horizon for sure has elements of "things man was not meant to know", all the result of the development of an FTL drive. [added 2023-06-19]
  • Jeff VenderMeer's book Annihilation and the movie adaptation of the same name starting Natalie Portman was all about cosmic horror. (The book is part of a trilogy; I recommend the second and third books too.)
  • The later books in James S. A. Corey's nine-novel series The Expanse are definitely cosmic horror. (The television adaptation didn't last long enough to really get to those parts.) The alien FTL technologies and nano-technology found by humans in the later parts of this epic series are not at all understood by the scientists, and they are appropriately horrified by their non-local behavior. (James S. A. Corey is the pen name of the authorial partnership of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)
  • And perhaps most controversially, even as most of it was based on the real science and technology of its day, I find Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey to have elements of cosmic horror.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now: The Expanse is obviously a great hard-SF saga of humans colonizing the solar system - and, eventually, beyond. Both the books and the television adaption are careful to obey the laws of physics, e.g. no FTL, no artificial gravity, and force, inertia, and momentum are all a bitch. But it’s not just that. In my opinion, it’s fused with a great story of cosmic horror, in the Lovecraft tradition, if H. P. Lovecraft had had some physics courses. (Lovecraft was in fact a great fan of astronomy in his time.)

I like to say that we really don’t want faster than light travel. When Einstein wrote

E = mc2

E was energy, m was mass, and c was… the speed of light in a vacuum? Not really.

The speed of light isn’t fixed. It has a top speed in a vacuum, but travels more slowly - indeed, sometimes more slowly than other particles - when going through a transparent medium. (That’s what causes the glow, called Cherenkov Radiation, in water-immersed reactors; particles that are the result of atoms fissioning travel through the water faster than photons, which in turn produces more photons.) But more weirdly: the speed of light is a particular medium is a constant for all observers in inertial reference frames (that is, moving but not accelerating), regardless of how fast each observer is moving relative to one another.

This is what special relativity is all about. If that weren't the case, stuff like the chemical reactions in our bodies that are necessary for life wouldn't work reliably. And keep in mind, we are all in motion, all of the time: we move on the surface of the Earth, the Earth orbits the Sun, the Sun travels through the Milky Way galaxy gravitationally dragging all of its planets along with it, the Milky Way moves through its local galactic cluster, the cluster... well, as far as we know, there's no end to it. All in motion, all of the time. There's no such thing as standing still. And if there were... standing still relative to what?

The variable c isn’t really the speed of light, in a vacuum or otherwise; it’s the speed of causality, the maximum speed at which cause-and-effect can travel. In a vacuum, light travels at this speed.

(Update: as far as I know, there is no definitive answer as to what Einstein and his peers had in mind when they chose c to stand for the speed of light in a vacuum; some have suggested it stands for constant.)

Special relativity is strange enough, in that observers, in different locations and traveling at different speeds in different directions, may legitimately disagree on the order of two independent events, “independent” meaning that those events are not connected directly or indirectly by cause and effect. There is no correct answer as to which event occurred first; it all depends on your point of view.

If we had faster than light travel, or faster than light communication, this gets even worse. Really, our basic perception of reality would come into question. We might not just disagree on the objective order of events, but information about events could arrive before the events apparently occurred. This is actually kinda scary.

Scary in a cosmic horror kind of way.


As I said before, while I’m a fan of H. P. Lovecraft - my alter ego has Miskatonic University business cards he uses for non-work related stuff - I find the popular conception of Lovecraft's creation Cthulhu to be way too anthropomorphic. The mere fact that we can describe Cthulhu - it (apparently) has an octopus head, a humanoid body, wings - means it's really not a cosmic horror. A true cosmic horror would be more of what Lovecraft meant when he wrote of people being driven insane because they could not possibly comprehend, much less describe, what they were witnessing and experiencing.


One of the things I liked about The Expanse books is that the scientists experimenting with the protomolecule and with the ring gates - both extraterrestrial technologies which humans manifestly did not understand any more than my cat understands my laptop - were actually deeply disturbed by the protomolecule's non-local behavior, and by the gates’ faster than light travel. And rightfully so. Lovecraft fans in The Expanse universe would have known that it would not end well. Technology that enables faster than light travel, and non-local behavior, is inevitably going to be a kind of cosmic horror, driving people mad with its non-Euclidian geometries.


So I have come to think of The Expanse series as a fusion of the hard-SF genre and the cosmic horror genre (with a little bit of body horror thrown in for good effect). I would not be surprised to find that the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck had that in mind from the very beginning.

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Widows and Orphans and Working from Home

Terrific - and terrifying - article from The Atlantic's "Work In Progress" blog by Dror Poleg, author of the book Rethinking Real Estate: the next crisis will start with empty office buildings.

The commercial real estate market - once so stable it was considered a widows and orphans investment - is changing radically. 25% of commercial real estate in large cities is empty, and that only counts the space whose leases have expired; it doesn't count leased space that isn't occupied, and is unlikely to be occupied again when the lease expires. Many real estate firms are "handing the keys to the bank" by defaulting on their loans.

I've been thinking about this ever since the Spousal Unit and I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 2022, post pandemic. It was held downtown at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker Driver right next to the huge Illinois Center complex.


We've attended conventions in this very same venue many times. I was shocked to see how the pandemic and the work at home movement had changed it. Illinois Center is an office building complex that sits atop a vast underground environment linking many such complexes. When we've been there in the past, on working days, this environment was full of retail, food, and service shops, and people bustling through it. This last time, it was almost empty, with a lot of empty storefronts.

Standing in our hotel room and peering at the adjacent office building, on a working day, the I could see the window office space on several floors were empty; I saw one single office worker, looking at what appeared to be large blueprints or schematics.


The commercial real estate market underpins a lot of city tax revenue and investments including pension plans. The clock is ticking: according to Poleg, a third of all office leases expire by 2026.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Bug Blast from the Past

I found a Day One bug in some unit test code today that I wrote in 2014, nine years ago. What caused the bug to show up now? I had botched where I had put a thread scheduling yield function call relative to a critical section in the unit test. Apparently this is the first time I have ported this multi-threaded C code to a single-core processor - in this instance, a Raspberry Pi Zero

This is remarkable. As someone said when I related this story to them, it's not uncommon to uncover bugs in code being ported from single core to multi-core processors, but the opposite transition happens seldom enough that this kind of event is rare.

For most of my career - which began before microprocessors even existed - all such computer chips were single core, that is: capable of executing only a single machine instruction at a time. I started writing this library, Diminuto, for a single core ARM4 processor in 2008. But it didn't take long to migrate to inexpensive ARM and Intel chips that could execute more than one instruction at a time. Today, I routinely use small development and test machines that have four or even eight processor cores. As a former colleague of mine, who I met when I worked in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and he with Seymour Cray at Cray Computer Company in Colorado Springs, once remarked, your Raspberry Pi 4B single board computer can, by most metrics, outperform Seymour's last supercomputer, the Cray-3 a.k.a. "The Fish Bowl".

The evolution of multi-core microprocessors was largely motivated by, IMNSHO, the end of Moore's Law, at which point doing stuff in parallel was the only way to produce faster microprocessors... faster, at least, for those applications which could take advantage of them. See also: Amdahl's Law.


Yes, that's a young(er) iteration of me leaning on a Cray-3 in NCAR's computer room at their Mesa Laboratory in Boulder Colorado. Compared to what we can do with computers today, those were the old days, but not necessarily the good old days.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

The Short Tail

Way back in 2004, Chris Anderson, who was then editor in chief of WIRED magazine, wrote an article, and later a book, about "The Long Tail". The idea is that technology and economics have made it possible for companies to provide some kinds of products for which each individual item might have low demand, but the number of items would be so large, that it would be profitable. The classic example of this was Netflix, from which you could rent a DVD of an obscure movie from decades ago; that DVD might not even exist until it rose to the top of your Netflix wish list, at which point it could be manufactured onto a physical DVD from a digital archive, and then shipped to you. Another example is, which provides an enormous variety of physical items, leveraging warehousing and logistics to keep costs low on low volume items. (The title comes from the shape of the graph where you plotted the demand for each item against the number of items; the head of the graph was high, representing the big hits, but the tail, although low, trailed off almost to infinity, containing all the niche products.)

Great idea. But those days are over.

Netflix, as everyone now knows, is dropping its DVD rental service in favor of internet streaming. Wow. Great. Except the number of movies it provides via streaming is a tiny fraction of what was available before on DVD. This orphans our long Netflix wish list, which was full of old classic movies that I hadn't seen, but wanted to.

Just a couple of days ago, the Spousal Unit had other plans, and I sat down with the TiVo remote control and laboriously searched for The Ipcress File, a 1965 spy thriller with a young Michael Caine, and Paint Your Wagon, a 1969 musical western with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. No luck on either movie, on either Netflix or with Amazon Prime, the latter of which I thought might work even if I had to pay a few bucks for either movie.

So much for the idea that internet bandwidth, and digital storage, being so cheap that virtually any digital media would be easily and almost instantly available. This is not the future I was promised in lieu of flying cars.

Today I read that Disney is dropping a pile of shows and movies from its streaming service. Why? Money, of course. This will - somehow - allow it to write-off US$1.5B dollars. This is existing content, which costs almost nothing to store and deliver technically, but may of course incur licensing fees to its creators. Including some of the very same writers that are currently on strike to protest in part terrible labor practices by production companies and giant media conglomerates.

I'm a capitalist at heart - I have to be, my income depends on it - but this is some kind of late-stage capitalism market failure.