Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Game From Mars

(I've been toying with this idea for the better part of the last five years and decided that it was ripe enough for this year's Halloween special. I think that it works on its own and could serve as the basis for further development)

The future did not turn out as was expected.  Sure, there had still been some progress technologywise but that had been even more tepid than the most conservative futurologists had predicted.   However, the most notable change had been the great strides in world peace and international cooperation and arbitration.  For the first time in centuries, if ever, several months could be threaded without international strife.  There still remained some internal disputes in some countries but those were of pretty no impact.  This climate of concord had been rightly hailed as mankind's greatest achievement and reasonably made up for the low technological change of the recent decades.    We still did not have jet packs or flying cars, and but at least we had a livable world.

This all changed with the successful completion of the Mars 3500 Mission.  The mission had been the result of very small incremental advances that had accumulated over time.  The space agencies had found early on that a manned round trip could be done without having to turn the mission into a suicidal one.  The catchphrase at the time had been: "Mars and back!" A few efficiencies in hull design, tiny advances in fuel chemistry, and material overhaul that had been cooking for some time was all it took for a safe Mars mission.

The landing site was chosen for no reason other than it "afforded a nice view of the Olympus Mons" as one official quipped.

Positive material proof of a shared universe was already old news by then. Notwithstanding, bringing some back in quantity wasn't. With the mission's completion and analysis the agencies published commemorative tome with the most important findings.

The story that would have the most impact was told in a sidebar in the same tome however.  It dealt with what was entitled "The Game From Mars".  Among the refuse and whatnot, an iron plaque was found etched with a few pictures.  The meaning of it was quickly deciphered as to be a game, mostly because of its eerie resemblance to Chinese checkers.  As best as it could be gathered, the object of the game was to advance your marble through a series of grooves from your side, colored red, to the far side of the board colored green.  Nothing quite out of the ordinary, but it offered a nice kicker to the whole mission.

Within a few days of the printing a few enterprising programmers wrote an app of the game for download.  It was a mild success due to the novelty and to the afterglow of the mission, but most of who downloaded it for $.99 gave it up after mastering it in couple of weeks in favor of something else.  In the charts it peaked at #6, just behind the Toyo Singing Calculator.

This situation would not last for long.  A small company made up of two brothers literally turned the game up on its head.  They programmed their own version of the game with the difference of starting backwards: getting the ball from the green camp to the red camp.  Thanks to the layout of the pits and grooves this made the game much, much more interesting than the original red counterpart.  The combinations and patterns that resulted from a well-played game were fascinating, and with each game, the players tried to find out new and more intricate patterns.  They called their game "Green Mars".

Green Mars

Green Mars took the world by storm.  Within a few days it topped the charts never to leave the spot ever again.  Ports to social sites were illegally made by third parties and condoned.  Users even demanded them.  Loudly.  No one was willing to wait for an official port.  Whole new communities emerged dedicated to Green Mars.  Servers crashed under the traffic load. Even printed magazines, of all things, were rushed for printing.  No one could get enough of it.  Merchandising went even beyond the usual suspects of cereal boxes and happy meals.  Magazine articles, special news reports and in-depth coverage, adoption by celebrities added fuel to the raging fire and brought attention to the game far and wide.  So the game's intrinsic appeal (considering the word 'appeal' as a far, far understatement), ease of access and wide publicity resulted in an unstoppable force.

A few psychologists interested in the phenomenon, to their credit sounded the alarm before the real trouble began.  Studying the impact of the game on behavior they quickly concluded that Green Mars' index of addiction was unlike anything seen before.  It just went over an over-optimistic scale that never assumed such a degree of hookup.  Mind you, the players didn't suffer from any physical impact from playing the game different from the already known effects of playing any game too much.  The thing was that the players couldn't help themselves playing on.  Food and hygiene still had some power over the players for a while but as soon as those were satisfied these faded into the background as well as anything else.  The study subjects even went aggressive towards the researchers when deprived of the game medium.  On average it only took four hours for withdrawal symptoms to surface and the threshold diminished daily.  The results didn't quite really get to see the light of day, since these didn't have the time to do so, but the few strenuous warnings that did come out went unheeded.

Things did change and for the worse 22 days after the release of Green Mars.  What at first had been interest, fancy and healthy dedication turned to wild fixation.  All of a sudden, as if falling from an unseen cliff, players found themselves unable to get away from the game.  It was still pleasurable, very much so, and that was the problem.  The first signals came with the skyrocketing of petty traffic accidents.  Then came the more serious ones with trains skipping the rails and passenger-filled planes  dropping from the sky.  The day that air traffic was canceled, the 24th, regulators expected this a temporary measure.  Then came the meltdown of two nuclear reactors the next day, and a dozen more during the week around the globe.  Goods delivery came to a standstill.  Doctors at hospitals became inefficient at best.  Uncaring, yet entertained, trauma victims were rolled to the ERs with their devices in tow.  Food and drink became a thing of the past with the present being all that mattered.  By the 30th the dead began to pile unburied and pestilence began to circulate at an accelerating pace.  States and governments became powerless, then silent.

This is how civilization ended.

(Check out last years Halloween special here and 2012's here )

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hoyle's Black Cloud

I'm not really into science fiction books (I'd rather watch movie adaptations), but last year my older brother gave me Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud as a must-read. I obliged and found it a bit contrived but good on the suspense and premise. The author focuses, however, on the decision-makers in their bunkers, leaving out a wide arena of possibility within his setting. Sure, its interest and the main purpose of the book to see how the higher-ups resolve the crisis at hand, but not that much is said of we, the regular people. As with a good disaster setting this is what I'd like to have read, in addition to the existing storyline, maybe by the hand of a different writer:

    Moon Halo, Moonlight through Clouds, Night; Source:; credit: Robert & Mihaela Vicol
  • A set of characters, independent of the scientists and politicians, carrying out their own lives, trying to solve their own particular affairs when events begin to unfurl.
  • How they begin to suspect something's amiss and how news begins to trickle in.
  • Transcriptions of the newscasts. Probably these hiding the truth.
  • The official crisis plan by the government
  • The ways the different new characters prepare themselves for the upcoming bad times, on their homes, work and family relations while still trying to achieve their preexisting goals.
  • The inevitable panic and looting
  • The reactions of religious groups
  • Life during the  hot and cold periods, especially during the dark days. The fear,the marauders, the screams from without the shelters
  • Reconstruction

There is ample room to still work within Hoyle's universe. I mention all this as a prelude for this year's Halloween special, in which I post a really modest sci-fi short story of my own, that kind of belongs to same vein to see if it goes anywhere. This, next time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Three Pillars of Zen book review

If you ever take up Zen, there's a hidden benefit: you really don't have to learn much. Just sit, focus on your breathing or your koan if you have one, and not much else. This makes it easy to get into. Zen is notoriously refractory to philosophy so there's no accumulation of knowledge that has to be learned to practice. In fact, knowing more may be a hindrance and knowing less might be part of the key. (The only other field I've seen something parallel is futures trading: knowing more doesn't necessarily mean better results). That said, one might get some benefits by learning how others have made it, their, goals their experiences. Some of these are gathered in the Three Pillars of Zen. 
source:; liverleaf 3 taken by Magnus Rosendahl
As said this is not required reading. This is more like a guided tour through the mechanics of enlightenment and a showcase of experiences of others on their way to it. If the Zen Life shows Zen from without,  Three Pillars take a more intimate inside view. It could be divided into roughly three non-continuous parts. The first consists of a series of talks of by a Zen master of different practice aspects. These are followed by transcriptions of from the private interviews (dokusan) between the seeker and the master. The second is a small collection of letters from the monk to those who have sought him for guidance and from a girl who went through the higher stages in just a few days. The last part contain sample accounts of present day seekers who who have achieved enlightenment written in their own hand. Each section is prologued by the author with general context and concepts. There's a brief annex on practice troubleshooting, but I did not find it terribly useful (better Meditation for Dummies). A welcome addition is the glossary as sometimes terms sometimes get jumbled up.

My favorite part is the private interviews where the seekers try to make sense of their koans. This single part is the next best thing (I feel) to getting hold of a flesh and bone master who's willing to take you on. Feedback’s the name of the game. My other favorite section was the diary of the American businessman seeker in the third part; his account is so close at home that one can relate to him and so clear that I can picture a short film being made out of it.

Recommended, yes, for the inner look and for the clear view of the whole field.

(If you are a Catholic, some, perhaps all, meditation practices might be harmful to you spiritual life. Check out Women of Grace or read what Sue Brinkmann has to say by googling her)

(After a brief hiatus for this year's Halloween special, I'll come back to close this series on meditation with another review)