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5 Pop Culture Apocalypse Scenarios and How They Might Happen

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Since the earliest days, humankind has pondered the end of the world. We’ve imagined messianic judgment days, cataclysmic comets, hyperspace bypasses, and Mega Maids. Here are a few apocalyptic scenarios from recent popular culture, how they might happen, and how likely they are to occur.

1. Subterranean Apocalypse

Some existential threats are waiting quietly beneath the surface of the planet, as we learned in Tremors, Gears of War, and the 2002 dragon apocalypse film, Reign of Fire. Is it possible that lurking horrors are underfoot, slumbering or tunneling, waiting for the right moment to strike?

Probably not. But there’s still a lot going on down there. For example, xenophyophores are extremophiles that live at the bottom of the ocean, to include the Mariana Trench, which is 6.6 miles below sea level. While it’s unlikely that these four-inch, single-celled organisms will rise up and enslave humanity, they do have a Wolverine-like resilience. The pressure in the Mariana Trench is eight tons per square inch.

The deepest land creature is 1.23 miles beneath the planet’s surface. Plutomurus ortobalaganensis was discovered eating decaying matter in the Krubera-Voronja cave in Abkhazia, according to Terrestrial Arthropod Reviews, which is an actual publication. But unlike its locust brethren in Gear of War, plutomurus ortobalaganensis is eyeless, giving humans an advantage in the inevitable conflict.

(Lest we become complacent, the Los Angeles Times reported on January 29, 1934, that Lizard People might once have lived in catacombs hundreds of feet beneath the city. It is unclear where they are today.)

2. Alien Apocalypse

If there’s one thing Independence Day taught us, it’s that Bill Pullman can give a pretty stirring speech. If there's a second thing the movie taught us, it’s that when extraterrestrials come, they won’t be looking for Reese’s Pieces. In 1960, astrophysicist Frank Drake estimated the requirements for detecting alien civilizations in the Milky Way. The Drake Equation examines such things as the rate of star formation, the number of planetary systems with life-sustaining worlds, and the number of those worlds that eventually produce life. Although the number is conjecture at best, Drake estimated that there are between 1,000 and 100,000,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

They can’t all be Vulcans out there. What would happen if aliens found Earth? According to Stephen Hawking, the best model we have for the discovery of Earth is what happened when Europeans discovered the New World. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."

Presently, the Voyager 1 space probe is approaching the heliopause, where solar winds give way to interstellar winds. It will be the first manmade object to leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space. (It’s traveled 11.1 billion miles so far; it moves at 38,000 miles per hour. Its battery will allow for data transmission back to Earth until around 2030, but inertia will keep it moving through space until the crack of doom.) The probe will be like a signal flare to the rest of the universe. And considering the mind-boggling technology required for galactic exploration, at best we’re insects to our alien overlords. (Hail Skroob.) At worst, we’re dinner.

3. Zombie Apocalypse

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a website devoted to emergency preparedness, with a section for zombie attacks. (“Get a kit. Make a plan. Be prepared.”) The top-selling product by ammunition maker Hornady is a green-tipped bullet called Z-MAX. (Its slogan: “Make dead permanent.”) The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Max Brooks, remains a bestseller nine years after its debut. Clearly there is some anxiety about “walkers” and the threat they pose.

With good reason. In June 2012, a naked, growling, incoherent woman was arrested in Syracuse, New York, after attacking her family. A woman in Kansas City, Missouri, bit her neighbor, dropped to her knees, and began “digging in the ground, like a dog would.” She then fought against police, kicking wildly, with clods of dirt in her mouth. Only days before, a naked man in Miami was shot dead by police as he chewed the face and eyes off of a homeless man. (The first bullet didn’t stop his gnawing.) In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, a man was arrested after he “bit a chunk of the victim’s face off.” Each of these grisly incidents, and many others across the United States and around the world, make 28 Days Later seem like a documentary.

A designer drug called “bath salts” has been blamed for each of these zombie attacks. It’s sold at head shops and smoke shops, and is marketed exactly as it’s described: as bath salts. (Don't worry, you won’t accidentally pick up a bag at the local grocery store and turn into a zombie. This stuff isn’t exactly brewed by Proctor & Gamble.) There’s no test for the drug, it’s unknown whether it’s addictive, and according to one former junkie, it makes you feel “like the darkest, evilest thing imaginable.” Like the undead. Praise the Lord and pass the Z-MAX.

4. Asteroid Apocalypse

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1998 was a great (well, terrible) year for Doomsday asteroids in film. Both Armageddon and Deep Impact promised us that if Lucifer’s Hammer came hurling toward us, all it would take are a couple of nukes and a plucky team to save humanity.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. First, it’s unclear whether we actually could blow up an asteroid that’s large enough to end the world. It’s also unclear whether we would want to. Any asteroid over 6.2 miles in diameter is considered “extinction-class.” The only thing blowing one up would do is turn one giant problem into a bunch of smaller problems. The Earth’s atmosphere would still have to absorb all that kinetic energy, which would probably end human life anyway.

But what are the odds that we might one day live out the video game Rage? There’s a 1-in-1000 chance that asteroid 1999 RQ36 will collide with the Earth in 2182. Those are the same odds as winning the Pick-3, only instead of taking home $600, the world ends. There’s a 1-in-250,000 chance that asteroid 99942 Apophis will impact the planet in 2036, which means you’re more likely to die from an asteroid than you are in a plane crash (1-in-11,000,000). The good news is that the dinosaurs took one for the team 65 million years ago. As Garp might point out, the world has been “pre-disastered.”

5. Thermonuclear Apocalypse

The post-apocalypse might be like the video game Fallout, with great music and the occasional mutant, but it would probably be like the novel The Road, with cannibalism and freezing, sunless days. One cause of such a climate is nuclear winter. (Other causes: impact winter, from an asteroid strike; and volcanic winter, from a super-volcano.) Theoretically, if the world’s nuclear powers decided to let the ICBMs fly, most major metropolitan areas would be targeted. The result would be a lot of smoke. Once the smoke reached the stratosphere it would remain there, as it would be above the clouds, and thus above the rain. This would block the sun, which would almost instantly plunge the planet into a perpetual winter. Without sun or heat, there would be no crops to feed boys or their dogs. This would last for years, though it’s doubtful we’d live long enough to know how many, exactly.

Nuclear winter isn’t the only problem. Contrary to the playground scene in Terminator 2, relatively few people are actually vaporized by the Bomb. (Those who are, though, wouldn’t even know it. They’d simply cease to exist, except for their shadows, which would be imprinted on stones and brick by thermal rays.) Survivors would be treated to searing heat, hurricane winds, and awesome firestorms before things like radiation poisoning or nuclear fallout would even cross their minds. (Essentially, “fallout” is the radioactive dust that’s created and dispersed by the blast. As dust is everywhere and never seems to go away, the resulting problem is self-evident.) Then there would be “black rain,” which is just what it sounds like—dark, radioactive rain.

How likely is this to happen? According to Martin Hellman of Stanford University, there’s at least a ten-percent chance that a child born today will die an early death from nuclear war. But on the plus side, the Mad Max dune buggies are going to be great.

Bonus: Matrix Apocalypse

It’s possible that the apocalypse has already happened, and this is all an elaborate game of The Sims. Dr. Nick Bostrom of Oxford University estimates a 20% chance we're actually living in a computer simulation. As Moore’s Law extends to infinity, it stands to reason that a hundred years from now we could computationally approximate the lives of trillions of people. For all we know, this is a lousy simulation, but it’s beyond our programming to see it. And because it’s hard to imagine things getting much sharper than Apple’s Retina display, maybe the program is coming to an end. As we’ve seen in Sim City, three of the five apocalyptic scenarios listed above are a possibility.

If reality really is just an advanced version of Sid Meier’s Civilization, there is hope yet. A Reddit-user called Lycerius recently posted to the site that he has been playing the same saved game of Civilization II for over a decade. (May our own computer deity have such devotion.) Lycerius reports that the year 3991 A.D. is a “hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.”

But at least humanity was spared asteroid 1999 RQ36, and the Lizard People never returned.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.