Cosmos: a review 40 years later

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980.

One day of January 2017, I bought Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show, and decided to read it… in 2019

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980. As many millenials, I discovered Cosmos through the 2014’s remake of Carl Sagan’s TV program by Neil de Grass Tyson. I loved this series when it was released and how accessible it made it for about anyone to understand the physics of our universe and why it’s important to care about it. I seldom knew about Carl Sagan and his work. I happened to know that he wrote Contact, and co-wrote the script of the film adaptation, and I wanted to watch his TV program, but never managed to find the time⁽¹⁾.

One day of January 2017, while visiting the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum of NYC⁽²⁾, as I was stumbling upon the space shuttle on the deck, I saw that they were selling Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show. So I bought it, and decided to read it… in 2019 (remember, time, and stuff).

I’m not gonna go into the particular, because it is dense, and as NdGT’s show, it goes back and forth between the past and the future, the extremely small and the immensely big. This coming and going is necessary to understand one important aspect of the universe: everything is linked. As Carl Sagan talks about the immensity of the universe, he tells about the probability of sentient life somewhere else, and he argues, according to our propensity to fuck things up, whether other civilisations can go past the nuclear age or if any advanced society is doomed to annihilate itself in an instant.

And that’s the objective of this book/series: tell us to wake the fuck up. Especially in the late 1970s, when the nuclear apocalypse seemed closer than ever, that with the existing nuclear arsenal, all human life (and most life) could be sacrificed in an instant. Not because world leaders wanted to use it, but because they were afraid the other party would use it first. Today, this threat hasn’t disappeared, despite the apparent end of the cold war, but the danger isn’t as immediate as it used to be. Still, the problem is still relevant. We don’t know what conflict might come upon us, and the nuclear weapons are still here.

And he doesn’t shy himself from global warming and climate change either. The problem was forcibly silenced by politics of all sides in the 1980s but nowadays we all see the effects and it’s probably the most pressing matter that we have to tackle if we are to survive on this planet. Carl Sagan talks in a lot of details about this issue and what can be done to deal with it. No need to say that the relevance of his argument is ever more convincing now.

I wanted to talk specifically about one event related by Carl Sagan at the end of the book: the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Even though the world has changed a lot since then, we live in a time when there is a resurgence of obscurantism led by very powerful people. The Alexandrian scholars used to gather every piece of scientific and technological works in a single place, and that’s what doomed it all. Works that didn’t have a copy would be likely destroyed with the library and a huge portion of antique knowledge has been lost forever, only to be rediscovered centuries later when science was again possible.

Today it would be unlikely that all this knowledge would disappear, since our capacity to copy extensively (virtually infinite in the Internet era) in a decentralised system has made it impossible to destroy, but there are still places that could very well get cut from all this important knowledge and still cause problem to the rest of the world (looking at you, US of A). Such an event could have an impact on decades or centuries. Or we could just get nuked.

So I think that Cosmos is an important book to read, even though there are a few obsolete information, mainly mysteries that have been resolved or technological challenges that have been overcome in the last 40 years, but overall, the relevance of the subject is still, well, universal.

(1) Ok, I binge watched the entire Gilmore Girls, and Friends twice since then. Don’t judge me.

(2) That’s a museum on an aircraft carrier. Just the place is incredible. You should check it out if you go to NYC and like technological stuff.

Review: Cultist Simulator, or “confusion as a gameplay mecanism”

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

It was really hard to get into it. The game seems really undecipherable at first glance. Nothing is explained but a laconic “try stuffs, see how it turns out” (I’m paraphrasing). All we know is that we’re supposed to create a cult, get followers, discover the arcane mysteries, avoid investigation and authorities, and basically not die. We’ll come back to that last one later.

So, I get some boxes, in which I have to put cards to get an effect, and when I combine different cards in those boxes, I get various effects or, more often than not, not much effect. So I try different combinations, the game is nice enough to highlight the cards that can be combined with the boxes, I try to make a bit of money, I read a mysterious description, and oops, I just died. What happened? I died of hunger apparently. So I must attend work every day to get money to buy food. Geez, is this the real life?

I try again. Different career. This one is rich (yup, that’s a career), so I guess I can hold on longer with my money. I try looking into the library, I may find books that tell me about the arcane and WHAT? I DIED AGAIN? Of hunger again. Apparently, even when you’re rich, you have to do something to not run out of money. Who am I to know, I’ve never been rich.

And I start again. You see the pattern here? Because yes, if you plan on playing Cultist Simulator, you are going to die. A lot. There is no workaround, and somehow that’s the whole point of the game. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve been drawn to after 22 hours of playing (not straight, I’m not crazy, but maybe you need to be crazy to play it). See, the developers didn’t provide a tutorial with the game, and made it very confusing, like you would probably be if you were thrown into a world you knew nothing about (here the occult). So you have to decipher the information you get, order it in a way it makes sense, and then you can see a glimpse of how the gameplay works and how you can beat the game.

Haha. Just kidding. There is no beating the game. It’s so hard to beat it that people are actually bragging about it. But I don’t really think beating it is as rewarding as it’s time consuming. The problem being a pretty boring middle ground, after you understood the ropes and when you just spend time scrounging for lore and trying not to get caught by police for being a cultist (which is game over if you get prosecuted). The investigators provide a bit of welcomed stress in an overall repetitive task. But even investigators are easy to get rid off when you’re surrounded by the right people.

Yup! That’s my current game. And it’s carefully ordered so it makes sense (to me).

In my opinion, even if the struggle to win is real, the interest lies more in getting to the safe zone after the start of the game, which is actually pretty hard depending on the career, than actually going all the way. I have the same feeling when I play Civilization. I love the start when the party is burgeoning and vulnerable, but at some point, it becomes farming and keeping the status quo with the rest of the game until there is an opportunity to win. And in Civilization, I never felt rewarded to win, just relieved, and I feel that Cultist Simulator is the same, but I don’t want to just die after spending hours on a party and then losing everything to start over.

Actually, I won the game once. I won the police career. Meaning I got promoted in the rank to become the most powerful person in there with a stable job. Never touched the occult. Long story short, it didn’t feel like a win, and it’s not supposed too, either. The game draws you into the forbidden world of the occult, to be scared to get caught, but tempted to look further. And it wants you to DIE! Again and again. To be fair, it’s described as “Lovecraftian” ⁽¹⁾, I guess I should have seen this coming.

So I think the fun of the game was mostly to work around the confusion of the start and make my own organisation in this messy pile of card. But after I got the hang of it, it’s mostly about raking up hours trying to find obscure combinations that will open doors to go further, and maybe one day finish it. But I’m really wondering: will it be worth?

(1) The developers made Sunless Seas, and soon-to-be-release Sunless Skies, so there is a pretty coherent theme there I might say