Thursday, August 23, 2007

Like Father Like Son

This is my son Colin.

He is trouble. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

My older son, Evan, who is not trouble in any conceivable sense, describes his brother this way: An angel with a devil's smile. Which is just about right, as far as I can tell.

Well, just this week, Colin followed in his old man's footsteps and got expelled from camp. Yes, expelled. As in cannot ever come back.

His crime? Well, basically being high spirited. The camp teaches Karate. So Colin tried it on some of his fellow campers and a couple of counselors. Some of the older campers were talking about people, such as Michael Jackson, being "gay," so Colin decided to try that out as a label for some counselors. They didn't see the humor. Nor apparently did it occur to them that a 4-year-old hasn't the faintest idea what that means (Try explaining the concept to anyone under, say, 12 or 15 and you'll see what I mean. I had a very unhelpful conversation about it with both Colin and his 8 year old brother which pretty much convinced me that this is a VERY advanced concept for anyone who cannot even spell "puberty" yet).

Oh, and he did threaten to kill someone. But he was repeating something from a Ben 10 cartoon, or something that his big brother watches. Colin, like most 4-year-olds, still thinks that death is something like a cold - take some medicine, wait a while, and you're all better.

So I guess we'll be needing a new camp next summer. Any suggestions?

Poor Colin. He still doesn't quite get what happened to him. He knows he "got kicked out," but that idea seems to occupy the same hazy territory as "gay" and "kill" in his little brain.

The whole thing just makes me tear up when I think about it too deeply. He's trying so very hard to understand the world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's all in the game

There is a slightly unsettling article in the New York Times Science section this morning. It rests on an idea that seems, on its face, to be preposterous, but it is unsettling because it turns out to be so insidious.

Writer John Tierney talks to an Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom, who is modestly well know for advocating a The Doomsday Theory, an exercise in logic that, as he describes it "seeks to show that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated."

But that's not what Tierney wants to talk about. Instead, he wants to talk about Bostrom's argument that there is a significant chance that we are all living inside a computer simulation run by remarkably advanced descendants of the real, non-simulated, human race. This is, of course, preposterous.

Unless it isn't.

Bostrum figures it this way. It seems very likely, based on our experience with increasing computing power, that sometime in the future – anywhere from a few decades to many millennia – humans will develop computers of sufficient power to realistically simulate the entirety of human history, complete with humans simulated in sufficient detail that they develop some level of consciousness. Whether this event is right around the corner or in the far future doesn't make much difference to the argument.

This being the case, there are only two basic reasons to assume that it is flatly impossible that we are living in some Matrix-like simulation. First, that no civilizations reach that level of technology (and we are clearly headed in that direction right now, so the implications of this argument are alarming), or, second, that civilizations that do reach this level of technology have no desire to run this sort of simulation. And clearly human beings do, even if no other creatures in the universe do – we do it all the time with our current computers: think Sims, Civilization IV, Caesar IV, and any similar simulation game. It seems unlikely that humans will lose their taste for watching such animated critters go about their business just as their ability to add detail and realism skyrockets. It's certainly possible that some highly advanced civilization might develop a moral or legal prohibition against such simulations, but it seems improbably that ALL such civilizations, and all individuals in such civilizations, would hold these beliefs and refrain from running any detailed simulation.

So, presuming those two conditions are false, then we have to assume that is possible we live in a simulation. If, indeed, processing power develops sufficiently, then it is likely that there would be many such simulations running, meaning the total number of conscious creatures living in computers greatly exceeds the number living in whatever constitutes reality. In that case, it would become ever more likely we are living in a simulation (Imagine, for example, that the hottest-selling computer game for Christmas in the year 2234 is SimEarth, or even SimCosmos. You begin to see the potential dimensions of this).

Bostrom puts the chances that we are living in some kind of simulation at about 20 percent, though if you read his original (and rather dense) paper on this, he appears to be implying a much higher chance.

So what if it's true? Well, in practical terms not much. Whether we live in a simulation or not, we still have problems and challenges we need to meet to live day to day. But there are some metaphysical and quasi-theological implications. If we are in simulation, then there is some kind of creator who can intervene or examine our actions. It is, therefore, possible that our actions are being judged and we could be punished or rewarded accordingly.

And it sure as hell explains a lot, doesn't it? The Big Bang? What a freaky idea, unless it is either a fiction created by the person running the simulation or some artifact of the beginning of the simulation itself. Suffering? Evil? War? Disaster? All part of game – a flawless life in a perfectly smooth cosmos would probably make lousy entertainment, or would be useless as some kind of research project.

But as I say, it's completely preposterous.

Isn't it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Don't mess with Karl

The news that Karl Rove is stepping down brings to mind my first, and rather peculiar, encounter with Rove, an encounter that caused me to largely avoid him during the time I covered the Bush campaign.

It was just a few days before the New Hampshire primary in 2000. Bush was touring the headquarters of the state police, but the building was quite small and cramped. That meant only a handful of reporters, known as the press pool, and a few staff could go on the tour. That left the rest of us cooling our heels outside. The temperature wasn’t too cold, but there was plenty of snow on the ground. Some of the reporters and staff began pitching snowballs back and forth. Eventually, Rove jumped in and began hurling snowballs at a couple of reporters hiding behind a snow bank – an event immortalized by Alexandra Pelosi's documentary "Journeys with George."

Rove turned out to be surprisingly nimble, however, and nobody could hit him. Spirits seemed high, everyone was laughing, including Rove. Finally, a cameraman blindsided him, coming up from the side and hitting him with a snowball, though I don't recall exactly how hard. Rove continued to laugh and joke, and ran after the guy, who ran away, all very playfully.

But not only was Rove nimble, he was fast, particularly for a guy who is short and rather doughy. He caught the cameraman and grabbed him around the neck, laughing and joking the whole time. He bent the much larger man over, held him in a powerful headlock, and began cramming snow in his face, scooping it up in handfuls from a snow bank. His jovial demeanor never wavered but I was the closest reporter, standing by myself in an area where nobody else was standing, and I heard the cameraman begin to splutter and protest and I could hear the impact of the snow as Rove shoved handful after handful into his face. I suddenly realized that Rove was actually hurting him deliberately, while making it look like a game.

I am not sure exactly how long the whole event lasted – it seemed like an eternity, though it was probably just a couple of seconds. As Rove shoved another handful of snow into the man's face, all the time laughing and shouting jokes, he looked up and locked eyes with me for just a moment. His eyes were both cold and triumphant – he had managed to exact brutal revenge for a playful, harmless attack and make it look to the world like an equally playful moment. But he was playing for keeps, even in a snowball fight.

That look so unsettled me that I pretty much stayed away from Rove for the rest of the campaign, talking to him mostly in the small groups of reporters. It was, in retrospect, a glimpse into the darker side of the Bush operation. I wish I had realized it at the time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Banned for Life 2

There's an interesting discussion of Facebook's hairtrigger banning system over at the Huffington Post. It was brought to my attention by a comment on my previous post by Huffington Post contributor Ann Handley, though it looks to me like the link she included in her comment didn't register correctly in the comment box. So here it is:

Too Popular for Facebook?

I'm not sure what to make of it all yet, though I find it interesting that my case seems to be part of a broad pattern by Facebook. My guess is that this issue will bubble up in the near future as more people get caught in this. One of the things that has made Myspace an enduring institution is that they seem to be more tolerant of business, journalism and other unusual uses and they seem to spend the time and money to police the site with some nuance and judgment, where, if Ann is to be believed, Facebook simply pulls the plug on a user with relatively little discretion. I suspect this could hurt Facebook's longterm prospects.


Here's an interesting tale that explains a bit about Facebook's practice of spiking certain users:

Happy Hotelier banned from Facebook?

And here is the story from Tasnim who posted the comment below about his experience with Facebook. I don't see exactly how to link the post directly from his blog, so I will repeat it verbatim (with apologies to Tasnim):

July 26, 2007: Sixth Anniversary of the Princeton Summer Journalism Program/Back on Facebook

So, I’ve officially been banned from Facebook.

Sucks, really. But… it’s fair because they warned me before… and I never took it seriously. They said to stop sending the exact same message over and over again so I altered it and sent a “dear _____” (so technically different right?) message to everyone. It was for an event I was planning–I had to. People don’t check their e-mail!

But I’m almost happy that they didn’t give me another chance. It’s like they KNEW this was going to kill my time. One less thing to deal with in college.

A week (exactly 7 days) without facebook. What an interesting experiment. I got through Harry Potter zippity-fast and got my application essays and reading assignments for Princeton out of the way. Now, it’s for real. Facebook was a pretty big and obsessive/addictive part of my life. That phase has ended. yay?

Edit: I know, I suck! I made another one. One week was apparently too long.

Forgot to mention! First time on the highway today. What a thrill. :

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

True crime

I keep an eye on the various true crime blogs online mostly to see if they turn up any interesting stories that People magazine might want to look at, but I normally don't get into the cold case sorts of stories that turn up once in a while. Except today. I don't know why this one, on the best of the crime blogs, caught my eye, but it is quite interesting.