Saint Sava (saint_sava) wrote,
Saint Sava

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Mutations (2), absurd (terrifying)

The Russian language has a great word: ostranenie, which translates very roughly to defamiliarization. Although best understood in a literary sense, it most certainly exists outside of books.

  • I have not checked up on dear old Mister Pants in a while. On his list was a link labeled "Message to 12,000 A.D.", which points to a document which considers the problem of informing (warning) the future inhabitants of Earth about the location and character of polluted areas. The report, generated by an interdisciplinary group of scientists, reads like a hybrid of Asimov, McLuhan, and Arthur C. Clarke, opening with the following passage:
    This place is not a place of honor.
    No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
    Nothing valued is here.
    This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
    Pay attention to it!
    Sending this message was important to us.
    We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

  • The most terrifying nightmare I have ever experienced was a simple one: a music box on a mantle was playing "You are my sunshine" repeatedly. However, each time it repeated, a single note was detuned, moved either a half-step up or a half-step down. The first altered note was simply discordant and jarring in a piercing fashion, but subsequently the alterations took a more bludgeoning toll, beating by steps the familiarity of the melody into a cacophanous, meaningless progression. The target of the accumulative anomaly quickly moved from the song itself to the method and context in which the song was perceived.

    Almost thirty years ago, an encoded message was sent from Arecibo. The message was intended for an extraterrestrial intelligence, and was therefore self-decoding, so to speak; it started with the binary representation of the first ten integers, serving both to indicate that its senders have advanced mathematical understanding and to synchronize the recipient's context with the sender's intent. From there the message went on to include information on human biochemical makeup, the structure of DNA, a very rough sketch of our gross anatomy, our height, and planetary population; our location in the solar system, and a schematic of the transmitter we used to send the information. All of this was fit as a series of bits -- no language except mathematics -- in a rectangular array whose dimensions are both prime, so that there is a clear indication of how the message is to be unencoded and formatted for reading.

    Late last year, in a corn field near a radiotransmitter array in Chilbolton, England, an altered version of the Arecibo message was found pressed. Among the modifications were the addition of silicon to the biochemical signature; the addition of an extra helix to the DNA structure; a population value indicating more than 20 billion; an altered solar system indicating life on the third, fourth, and fifth of nine planets indicating that the message originated from the fifth; the replacement of the human with an almost comically standard picture of typical "gray" anatomy, with the height indicated as about 3-foor-4; and, most strikingly to me, a completely altered schematic of the transmitter, with the size given as approximately 850 meters, as opposed to the 300-meter Arecibo transmitter. There's a good analysis of the original and modified Arecibo messages at, but if you want a picture of the altered message that's clear enough to do your own math, you have to go here.

    Given all it has going for it, from the mystical appeal of the content to the ingenuity of the construction of the circle itself to the almost obligatory information that was injected into the original message, of course, it's all just poop. The scientists among us will tell you that the message, sent "only" thirty years ago, hasn't even had time to reach its intended destination; the hopeful will tell you that it simply must be true. It's pointless to argue one way or the other, I presume: is the old "Why did the chicken cross the road" joke true? What would it mean for a joke to be true ? More and more I see the universe and everything in it as one colossal inside joke. Too many people are far too busy seeing their own prejudices, assumptions, and likenesses reflected in it to properly appreciate the real substance of it, which goes far beyond any fleeting human conception like "little-t" truth, and probably has more in common with the credits of a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie than you'd dare to think: for the so inclined, there's the proof that e to the i pi equals minus one, which is somewhat like the Far Side cartoon with Elvis, Jimmy Hoffa, and the Loch Ness Monster in it, except that this time, you've got film in your camera. For those who'd rather not think, there's the butter-side-down certainty: a little more malevolent, perhaps, since the joke's always on you. It's been said before: God is the greatest comedian, but we're all afraid to laugh.
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