Kelson Reviews Stuff - Page 1

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

Katie Mack

★★★★★

An engaging read for the general audience about what we currently know about the history and structure of the universe and what that knowledge – and the pieces we don’t know – might mean for its future and eventual end. Katie Mack writes in a casual, entertaining style. It’s clear she finds all of this absolutely fascinating. And she sprinkles the writing with funny stories and quotes and side notes to get across the basics of quantum mechanics, Higgs fields, high-energy physics and the like without delving too much into the math. But the math, and the measurements, are important, because as it turns out, very small changes in how things work at the quantum level can have major implications on the universe’s ultimate fate.

The last time I read about this topic in anything resembling depth was about a decade ago. Since then there’ve been major discoveries in both quantum physics (chiefly confirming the existence of the Higgs boson) and astronomy, where we’ve found ways to look at ever more distant galaxies, and effectively farther and farther back in time.

Dr. Mack goes through the easier to grasp possibilities first, the ones based on what we do know about the universe. Big crunch, heat death, big rip - these are almost tangible, and which is more likely depends on things we can measure right now. Then she gets into the more esoteric possibilities, the ones based on the uncertainties. Like, if this quantum field we’ve measured is a little bit off one way or the other, reality might be unstable, so it would be really helpful to get better measurements. Or some of the multidimensional theories that have been proposed to unify relativistic gravity with quantum mechanics. If our 3D universe is just one of many in a larger-dimensional space, colliding with another one would probably be bad news for both!

She finishes up with a quick round-up of upcoming lines of research and some new theories in development that could fill in the gaps, or could shift to a new paradigm. (One theorist she spoke to suggested that even space and time might not be fundamental aspects of the universe, but built on something else)

Random thoughts:

I’ve known about the cosmic microwave background radiation for a long time. But I’d always thought of it as “leftover radiation,” like a lightbulb fading as it cools down. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of looking so far back in time that we’re effectively seeing the big bang itself (or at least the point when the universe was still on fire)!

Dark energy as a cosmological constant, something Einstein put in his equations because they wouldn’t balance otherwise, then someone else figured out how to get the math to work without it… and then later observations found this weird discrepancy that could be best explained by adding this constant to the equations. Einstein was right even when he was wrong!

I still can’t wrap my head around the concept of vacuum decay. It’s like an ICE-9 scenario for the laws of physics.

We know more about dark matter than we used to. We can map it. We know roughly how much there is and roughly where. We know what it does. We just don’t know what it is yet.

And yet calculations indicate that dark matter and dark energy – whatever they turn out to be – make of vastly more of the universe than our own kind of matter!

Heroes of Might and Magic III

★★★★★

I couldn’t begin to count how many hours I played this back when it was new. Heroes IV was fun too, but this is the one that I always remember from the series. Good for both solo play and two-player campaigns, the key is really logistics: what resources do you go after first, which troops do you build up, where do you send them, and so on. There’s strategy to the actual battles too, but it mainly depends on your choices building and exploring.

Outer Wilds

★★★★★

Outer Wilds is a fascinating game of discovery in a finely-crafted, tiny solar system trapped in a time loop.

It’s a space exploration game that starts in a forest next to a campfire. The first thing you can do is toast a marshmallow. (You can do the same at campsites on all the planets.)

You explore the other planets in your tiny solar system using a ship made of plywood and sheet metal, with duct-tape repairs. You need to figure out why the system is stuck in the time loop, and what happened to the ancient aliens who visited the system eons ago and died out, leaving only ruins.

Each planet is wildly different. One’s a hollow shell around a small black hole. Another is an ocean world with constant storms. There’s a rocky world with a deep equatorial canyon that shares an orbit with a world covered in sand…that flows between planets as the loop goes on. Another has been shattered into pieces by a giant space-growing bramble. Events during the loop change the environments too, blocking some areas and revealing others.

In theory you could finish the game in 22 minutes…but the fun is the hours of exploration in which you uncover the story and figure out how to finish the game. The ending, once you get to it, is a perfect, bittersweet coda to that story.

Vs No Man’s Sky

In a sense, Outer Wilds is the opposite of No Man’s Sky.

  • One’s a tiny cluster of carefully-crafted worlds, each unique, each requiring different ways of exploring.
  • The other is an infinite galaxy of auto-generated worlds, but when it comes down to it, the differences are mostly in the aesthetics and labels. A high-radiation world and a high-temperature world don’t really differ except in which resource you use to recharge your shielding.

I mean, I like No Man’s Sky. I’ve got several hundred hours on it. But a lot of the game play is the same thing you’ve done before a zillion times, just dressed up differently and with better equipment or more inventory slots as you go along.

Campfire Songs

I love the the soundtrack too. Most space games don’t use banjos and harmonicas as key instruments, but each astronaut in the game also plays music on a different instrument while sitting by their own campfire, each on a different planet. Though I’m not sure how the ocean one stays lit.

So here’s a toast(ed marshmallow) to the travellers from Timber Hearth.

KeePass Password Managers

★★★★★

Unless you only use a handful of online services, a password manager is a must these days. If you reuse the same password across more than one website, and one of them gets hacked, leaked, or otherwise breached, hackers will try that login/password combination on other sites. You don’t want someone gaining access to your email or dropbox because some store you bought a shirt from two years ago lost control of its data.

There are a bunch of different password managers out there. Most of them are online services themselves, which means you have to (a) trust that they won’t snoop on your passwords and (b) trust that their security is good enough that your passwords can’t get hacked.

What’s KeePass?

KeePass is an offline password manager that keeps your vault encrypted locally, on your own system. Or you can sync it any way you want, between as many computers and mobile devices as you want. Local file shares, SFTP or WebDav, your own NextCloud server, a cloud service like DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive or iCloud, etc. And even if you use a cloud service, it (or an attacker) can only access the encrypted file. You have full control over your password storage!

The format is open, so you can mix and match different apps with the same database. I’ve found this combination works well for me:

Desktop: KeePassXC

★★★★★

I’ve used KeePassXC, the original KeePass, and KeyPassX (which is discontinued). KeePassXC responds more quickly in my experience, is actively maintained, just looks better, auto-saves your changes, offers to re-load when your sync setup bring in changes from another device, and it needs fewer hoops to jump through to install on Mac and Linux. And since I switch between Windows, Mac and Linux all the time, having the same password manager on all of them is helpful.

Download KeePassXC

Web Auto-Fill: KeePassXC-Browser

★★★★★

This add-on handles auto-fill for Firefox, Chrome(ium), Vivaldi and so-on, and is built by the same team that maintains KeePassXC.

It takes a little effort to connect it to your desktop app the first time, but from that point on it mostly does its job and stays out of your way, detecting login forms and adding a button to fill in credentials you’ve stored with that URL in KeePassXC (when you have the desktop app open and the database unlocked).

Tips on matching websites to password entries:

  1. General URLs will match better, like example.com instead of example.com/login?fromSignIn=true.
  2. You can associate extra websites that use the same account by putting them in extra fields named KP2A_URL, KP2A_URL2, etc. in the desktop application. (Conveniently, these are the same fields KeePass2Android uses.)

Download KeePassXC-Browser:

Mobile: KeePass2Android

★★★★★

A nice, clean Android app with auto-fill support for both websites and apps. It locks the database after a timeout, but you can set it to keep it available and quick-unlock using either part of your password or your device’s fingerprint scanner if it has one.

Syncing is supported by SSH, WebDav and NextCloud, as well as major cloud services like DropBox, OneDrive and so on. It’s almost seamless, too. I’ll often add a password on my desktop, then open up my phone and it’s synced already. Or vice versa. Both KeePassXC and KeePass2Droid keep their local copies updated as you change them, and have been surprisingly good at merging changes when they get out of sync!

Download:

I’m sure there are some good iOS apps for KeePass, but I don’t have an iPhone, so I’ve never looked or had a chance to try any out.

Chivalry

Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

★★★★★

Detailed calligraphy with a knight in armor and an old woman in a modern apron on either side of the holy grail.Beautifully drawn and painted, Chivalry is a sweet, charming take on Arthurian legend brought into modern times. Worth it for Colleen Doran’s art alone, which continues the style you can see on the cover: painted scenes and panels, with borders and calligraphy and margin drawings like an illuminated medieval manuscript. I’ve read other graphic adaptations of Neil Gaiman stories that tried to keep too much of the prose, but here the words and illustration are balanced perfectly to serve the story, and again, the art is amazing.

The story is kind of fantasy fusion comfort food. It follows familiar patterns, mixing the magic-item-found-in-a-shop trope with the Arthurian grail quests.

An old widow picks up the Holy Grail at a thrift shop, takes it home and sets it on her mantelpiece. Soon after, Sir Galahad shows up. He’s been looking for a long time. He keeps coming back, offering one thing after another in exchange for the end of his quest. They strike up a friendship, he gives neighborhood children rides on his horse, and eventually brings her something she’ll accept in return.

Colleen Doran (official site) · Neil Gaiman (official site)