Saturday, December 18, 2004

Are We Living in a Simulation?

Buadrillard, Eco et alia have developed Jorge Luis Borges' idea of "the Map of the Empire which perfectly co-incided with the Empire itself" into The Philosophy of Simulation. As hard-headed "realists" we assume that we have an intuitive grasp of where reality stops and simulation begins. The cartographer who constructed the great Map of the Empire presumably knew that the Empire itself was real. Or did he? Could such an assumption be philosophically warranted?

According to Nick Bostrom, and others, the strong likelihood is that we are living in a computer simulation.

The logic is as follows: At least one of these propositions is true: (1) The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small. (2) Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours. (3) You are almost certainly in a simulation. Each of these propositions seems prima facie implausible but let's work through them logically: If proposition (1) is false (there may be some highly dangerous technological development which sufficiently advanced civilisations inevitably develop which then destroys them, but let's, optimistically, assume this isn't so) then we, and/or other human or alien civilisation(s), have a good chance of reaching technological maturity. It then seems most unlikely that, with the corresponding exponential growth of computer processing power, that we/they are not going to harness a fraction of their technological resources to exploring the possibility of simulating human minds within the context of greater simulated or virtual realities. If we reject propositions (1) and (2) then it is logically inconsistent to reject proposition (3) since such an advanced civilisation could reasonably be expected to generate an astronomical number of simulated minds and these would, inevitably, far outnumber the non-simulated or "real" minds powered by organic brains. We, and the world we live in, are therefore (if we accept the logic) almost certainly part of a simulation.

This theory dovetails nicely with the subject of time travel. The most likely way for future generations to "visit the past" would be, I'd suggest, for them to visit a computer-generated simulation/virtual reality. If we follow Bostrom's logic, even if, as is currently thought likely, a technologically mature civilisation is incapable of harnessing enough energy to "really" travel in time it would probably have the capacity to generate an almost infinite number of exact replicas of the past. It is very, therefore, likely that we are currently "living" in just such an "ancestor simulation".

The controversial aspect of the Nick Bostrom's argument relates to the assumption of "substrate-independence" i.e. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well. If we accept the proposition that advanced computers are likely to be capable of simulating a human mind then the logic appears sound. If we accept that technologically mature civilisations are likely to be capable of replicating the functionality of organic brain tissue in silico then it seems inconcievable that they should choose not to devote a fraction of their technological resources to this very task and thus reach, what could be referred to as, a "posthuman" stage of development. If we also assume that technological development is not likely to be constrained by the extinction of the species then the conclusion that posthuman civilizations would have enough computing power to run hugely many ancestor-simulations even while using only a tiny fraction of their resources for that purpose is philosophically warranted.

Bostrom's logic is quite simple: The refutation of the first two, prima facie implausible, propositions, the above caveat notwithstanding, clearly warrants acceptance of the third. If either, or both, of the first two propositions are true then the third proposition is clearly false. If you accept that the first two propositions are probably false, as do I, the high likelihood is, the "substrate-independence" assumption notwithstanding, that we are indeed "living in a simulation" (hence the "almost certainly" caveat).

Having refuted the first two propositions, one reason why we might not be living in a simulation could, of course, be that we are the original civilisation approaching technological maturity but, if we accept the proposition that technologically mature civilisations would be capable of and predisposed towards running ancestor-simulations then the high likelihood is that we are not the original civilisation but rather a replicated civilisation residing in a simulation rather than the "real" world.

Indeed the simulation theory leads inevitably to the conclusion that those who created the simulation we inhabit are themselves part of a simulation devised by an even older, more technologically sophisticated race. Simulations generated by, and within, simulations are not only foreseeable but inevitable if the simulated civilisations are to "authentically" replicate the original civilisation.

What really interests me, however, is even if we could determine that we were living in a simulation would we act any differently? Would we be liberated from all moral and ethical constraints or would pragmatic consequentialism (adherence to the simulation's internal rules of reward and punishment) lead us to act in much the same way? Would liberation from the prospect of punishment in the afterlife (for the God, or Devil, fearing amongst us) prompt us to adopt a pragmatic strategy such as "everything is permitted provided you don't get caught"? Probably not. Presumably any "omniscient", "omnipotent" (or merely sadistic) simulation programmer would have thought of constructing another level to the simulation? Your fate in that "afterlife", or "aftersim", could well depend on how you behaved in your present simulated incarnation. Even if we were living in a simulation, the best way to predict what would happen next in our simulation would be the ordinary methods – extrapolation of past trends, scientific modelling, common sense and so on. If you thought you were in a simulation, you should, probably, get on with your life in much the same way as if you were convinced that you are living a non-simulated life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Aladdin Casino and The New McCarthyism

It's my sad duty to convey the news that all is not well in Sin City.

At the end of the movie Casino Bobby De Niro lamented the Kafka-esque metamorphosis of Las Vegas from a mob-controlled den of vice, gambling, sleaze, decadence, and hedonism to a family-orientated theme park. Cocktail Angst's Last Tango in Vegas (featured on the Vegas Swings compilation) poses the question What happened to the seeds that Frankie sowed; what have they done to Bugsy's town? The answer is inescapable. They killed it stone dead. I'll tell you why....

Now I'm no fan of Michael Moore. I think he's a talented polemicist who never lets the facts stand in the way of a good story. I'm not going to elaborate on this because it's only my view and, for the purposes of this argument, it matters not a jot what I think of the guy. What matters is he has a right to express his views and people have a right to hear him and make their own minds up.

Not, it seems, in Bush's America. "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" just got a little less free and a lot more paranoid and scared.

It's been coming for a while. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was forced into making a public apology to Bush after she had the "temerity" to remark in London recently that the current President made her ashamed to come from Texas. Irate callers, apparently, jammed country music radio station switchboards demanding an embargo be placed on the Dixie Chicks music and "concerned and patriotic citizens" called for boycotts of their records and the Dixie Chicks record label. An amusing parody of Maines' apology can be found here

So much so worrying but now The Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has jumped on the populist bandwagon that is The New McCarthyism.

Singer Linda Ronstadt appeared at The Aladdin a few days ago. She dedicated a song to Moore and urged people to go and see his new movie Farenheit 9/11. What followed could have been described as farcical if it wasn't so disturbing. First of all a significant minority of the audience decided to storm out of the theatre demanding their money back. Some allegedly threw their cocktails in the air and tore down posters advertising the gig. Next the Aladdin, in it's finite wisdom, elected to curtail Ronstadt's performance and eject her from the premises, not even having the courtesy to allow her to go back to her suite to change and collect her luggage.

The Casino claimed that "Ms Ronstadt was hired to entertain the guests of the Aladdin, not to espouse her political views." They claimed that she was engaged to sing and not to talk politics.

So singers shouldn't be allowed to talk? Should stand-up comedians be allowed to sing? Should singers introduce their songs with a song? I once saw Al Green sing his travel itinerary to an appreciative audience but even he talked a little. Al talked about Christianity and stuff like that. I guess that was beyond his remit?

If Linda Ronstadt had sung a song attacking the Bush administration or one in tribute to Michael Moore that would, presumably, have been fine by with The Aladdin ~ I assume they're not proposing that singers be prohibited from singing about political matters? If they are it loooks like we just lost approximately half the world's legacy of popular song! If she had sung a pro-Moore or anti-Bush song I'll bet you a whisky sour to all the beer in Brooklyn that the monkey in charge of the casino would still have thrown her out.

If we follow the Aladdin's reasoning to it's absurd conclusion stand-up comedians would be within their rights to tell "unpatriotic" jokes about the Iraqi campaign but would be in deep trouble if they sang about it. People who go to see comedians, according to Aladdin logic, pay to hear jokes (and only jokes) and jokes critical of the Bush administration are still jokes, right?

Tom Cruise gave an excruciatingly jingoistic speech at the Oscars following 9/11. Presumably the literal-minded Aladdin management would suggest his ass should have been thrown out onto the red carpet because award ceremonies are, duh, for giving out awards? I doubt it.

And why should actors express their political opinions in public anyway?

I know Vegas is another world but I didn't realise performers had to check their political views at the casino door. So are we to assume, then, that certain venues in certain cities are off-limits to politics. Which venues in which towns are appropriate for the expression of political opinions? New York, L.A. and San Francisco are OK, I guess. Vegas, Houston and Salt Lake City are, I'm guessing, out? Or is it just that some political views are off-limits wherever they're expressed in "The Land of the Free" these days?

Vegas has changed and that's a fact. I'm sure the casino bosses were AOK with Frank Sinatra's racist jokes about Rat Pack "buddy" Sammy Davis Jnr. back in the day and the Chairman of the Board's sexist treatment of "broads" probably had Sam Giancana and co. rolling in the aisles when they weren't too busy relieving the count room of the mob's share of the casino profits. Of course I'm just being facetious now but I'm sure Vegas wasn't exactly off-limits to politics when Sinatra and co. were smoothing JFK's passage to the White House.

The Aladdin and some irate customers claimed that they had no warning that the show might contain political content. As a matter of fact Linda Ronstadt is a well-known opinionated liberal and she'd introduced the same song with a reference to Michael Moore at all her other tour dates. Presumably if Ronstadt had been made aware of the fact that different standards apply in Vegas then perhaps she could have confined herself to the stereotypical preconception her audience had of her?

Now correct me if I'm wrong but I thought the whole point of art was to provoke, amuse, surprise, stimulate and excite? Not in America it seems.

Rock and roll, and popular music in general, have never been, and should never be, about conformism. If you can predict exactly what an artist is going to do or say on stage then you're probably at an anodyne Celine Dion concert with an audience composed of conformist cadavers and the blue-rinse brigade. Of course any audience have the right to vote with their feet if they don't like what an artist sings or says. They have the right to decline to buy their product. They don't have the right to prevent them from saying and singing what they like.

The casino was, no doubt, trying to make cheap promotional capital by pandering to prevailing populist political sentiment. This is Vegas we're talking about after all. Nothing goes down in Vegas if money isn't at the root of it. I'll warrant this was all about "the dead presidents" rather than the brain-dead president.

One thing's for sure a venue would be roundly castigated by British public opinion if it pulled a cheap political stunt like this. Trying to ingratiate yourself with the current administration by attacking freedom of political and artistic expression is not a tactic anyone would even think of using in the U.K. Who would want to be known as a censorious sycophant? I know Huey Lewis sang It's hip to be square but why the Hell did the Yanks have to take him so seriously?

You can't disengage people from their political views and you certainly can't disengage politics from music. One of my favourite albums of all-time is an undeniably political record: "What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye.

Ironically America has a particularly rich tradition of political music. From rock to r'n'b, funk, soul and rap (the most overtly political genre of music yet) politics and music have been inseparable.

Singers, musicians, artists, comedians and creative people generally are multi-faceted individuals. From the moment they take to the stage to the moment they leave it they own the stage. They can say, do and sing what they like. It's called freedom of artistic expression.

If artists break the law alert the approproriate authorities. Otherwise let performers perform. The minute baboons in dinner jackets begin censoring their performances and pandering to populist, reactionary sentiment is the minute we're all in big trouble. And the moment "intelligent" people (The Aladdin's egregious act has had more than it's share of apologists in the American media) start approving of the actions of reactionary baboons in dinner jackets is the moment the party ends.

Looks like, in Vegas at any rate, that time is now.

Friday, June 18, 2004

A few thoughts on the demise of Frasier

The imminent demise of one of my favourite shows prompted me to trawl through the internet looking for information about upcoming Frasier dvd releases. I can't imagine life without my regular "Frasier fix" and Paramount repeats just won't do ~ I need nice shiny Frasier artefacts assuming pride of place in my dvd collection and I need them now. I recently discovered a lone copy of series 2 hidden forlornly, and almost apologetically, behind the massed ranks of Friends dvds in my local record store and I was alarmed at the implications for aspiring completists amongst us.

Now, I wouldn't consider myself a Frasier aficionado and I'm certainly not an anorak. I couldn't even tell you the names of more than a handful of episodes. But one thing I do know is this: I feel sad that Frasier is coming to an end. All that sentimental rubbish that Friends' fans spout about losing their ersatz "buddies" is starting to hit home. What will life be like without Frasier and Niles' dry wit, erudite charm and endearing pretensions? Diminished without a doubt. Frasier was such a rich and rewarding viewing experience for me because it was populated almost exclusively by characters I'd really like to hang out with and shoot the breeze with. I'm gonna miss those guys and gals. Sadly, there's little doubt that we'll never see Frasier's likes again. Frasier represented one of the few remaining recalcitrant ghettos of intelligence in the dumbed-down dystopia that is contemporary t.v. programming.

What have we got left? The West Wing, The Sopranos and The Simpsons, at a push. Not that there ever was a golden age of intelligent t.v. Shows like Twin Peaks, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Larry Sanders were always the exception rather than the rule. However we're now fairly and squarely in the grip of lowest common denominator scheduling. I've got about 900 channels and I can't find anything worth watching on any of them. Jackass, Big Brother, Pop Idol and their execrable ilk seem to be the template for the future. I suspect even the insipid "Friends" will seem like an anachronistic example of intellectual humour to future generations.

I never really understood the alleged "rivalry" between Friends and Frasier. To compare the entertaining antics of the stylish Seattle sophisticates to the anodyne adventures of a bunch of vacuous telegenic New York yuppies is the equivalent of proposing that Manhattan and Ace Ventura Pet Detective be accorded equal status in the pantheon of cinematic comedy. My sister and my wife both love Friends and I've been subjected to the infernal show more times than I'd care to admit yet I've failed to smile once let alone laugh. I don't know if it's a "chick" thing, and due to the affection those nearest and dearest to me obviously possess for the show I'm naturally reluctant to claim that it's a "thick" thing, but I just don't "get" it. I'm sure the writers on Friends are smart people and I'm equally sure that they were "slumming it" and "writing down" for the sake of the ratings.

The thing I love about Frasier is that it's never been afraid to shoot for the stars. It never patronises and underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. And, as the excellent final series has proved, it was never afraid to take risks. One of the last episodes (Crock Tales) was a brilliantly subtle deconstruction of the inanity of "rival" shows as well as a touching reaffirmation of all that has been, and is, unique about Frasier. This wonderful episode was certainly nostalgic and sentimental but in Frasier's inimitably endearing, imaginative, intelligent and idiosyncratic way. Thankfully the formulaic predictability of other shows has never been Frasier's modus operandi. We can argue until the cows come home about which were the best episodes, and seasons, or moan about how the show lost some of it's sparkle in seasons 8-10 but the truth is the worst of Frasier was always far superior to the best of practically any other show. One thing's for sure though: I've never met a Frasier fan I didn't like.

As Steely Dan once sang: Sharing the things we know and love, with those of our kind; Libations, sensations, that stagger the mind. Frasier is quite simply one of the best things in life, and it's always been an axiomatic principle of mine that "if you like Frasier too then we're going to get along just fine."

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Playaz & Hataz

If Miles Davis and Ernest Hemingway could have produced a child it would have been Ewan. True creative writing genius is a rare beast, and of all the current posters in here I can think of only one – Ewan is clearly the 400 lb gorilla in our midst ~ Nathan Hasalbauer, President, International High IQ Society, New York.

Ewan - A profound and enlightening writer for the masses, a light sardonic touch. A real post-post modernist outlook that gives him the look of a man on the edge of civilization; not dire, but an optimistically dire perspective. Sees life through the eyes of an Underworld traveller but with the panoramic scope of a flying hedonist. Darts through the mesosphere with a yawn and sometimes a slyly held middle finger ~ Will Weatherley, Southern California

He a jazz record. Don’t look. Listen ~ Robbie, Berkeley

A misanthropist with a mean streak a mile wide ~ Robert, San Francisco

Pretentious p**** ~ P.B., Kirkcaldy