Thursday, February 09, 2006

Game Over

“It’s like a game, Jimmy,” his father said. “Do you remember playing Civilization X last year?”

Jimmy nodded. He loved those simulation games, and Civ X was his favorite, allowing him to guide the development of a civilization over time, battling other countries, trying to get to the new technologies first. He particularly loved being the one in charge, intervening here and there to guide the civilization’s development along the lines he wanted.

“Well, it’s a lot like those games, but about a bazillion times more complicated.”

“There’s no such number as bazillion, Dad!” Jimmy was pretty smart for his age.

His father smiled. “Okay, you’re right. And actually, we really don’t know how much more complicated this simulation is. We’re using some new technology called quantum computing, and with a theoretical 21,000,000 qubits of processing power, it might as well be a bazillion. It’s a number so large that we really don’t have a word for it.”

Most of this went over Jimmy’s head, but he got the idea. A Big Simulation. Sounded fun. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on it! "When can I play it, Dad?"

"Well, we just got started. How about you let all us scientists play with our new toy for a while, and then when things settle down I'll let you take a crack at it?"

This was a little frustrating, but Jimmy knew that sometimes you had to wait. Waiting for Christmas sometimes was tough, but usually worth it. This probably would be too.


Jimmy’s dad lifted up his display specs, rubbed his red eyes, and said “Yes, Jimmy? What is it? Daddy’s a little busy right now.”

“It’s been over two months, Dad. When am I going to get a chance to play with the new simulation game?”

“It’s not a game!” his father snapped. Jimmy started to tear up, and his father’s face sagged, weariness spilling from his eyes. “Listen, Jimmy. I know I told you I’d let you play with it a bit. But it’s not turning out like we expected it to.”

Jimmy stopped sniffing. “What’s wrong with it?”

His dad shook his head. “Nothing's wrong with it.” He stared off at the wall of the room. “ It’s almost just the opposite...a bit too real” he murmured.

“What do you mean?” Jimmy asked. “Do you think it’s too real for me to take? C’mon, dad – I was able to watch that gory movie with you last week and I didn’t get scared.”

His dad looked again at Jimmy, with a half smile. “That’s true, champ. You’re pretty tough. Smart too." He seemed to come to a decision. "So let me try and explain what’s wrong, because I know you want to understand. Ok?”

Jimmy nodded eagerly.

“This simulation was to try to test out what we thought we knew of our theories of physics and the origin of the universe. We wanted to see how close we could get the simulation to behave like our current ‘real’ universe. With all the processing power available to us, we decided that we weren’t going to ‘start in the middle’ like with normal simulations. We wanted to start with some of the basic known parameters of space-time, set off a big bang, and let it evolve from there.”

“Didn’t it work? You didn’t get stars and stuff like that?”

“Oh, that part worked great. We got stars ‘and stuff like that’ within the first week of the simulation. Then we got more – a lot more.”

“Like what?” Jimmy asked.

His father hunched forward. “Like life, Jimmy! Or something that we think looks a lot like life. We used some of the computing power available to develop probes that could monitor the internal state of the universe simulation, just so we could track what was going on. And about a week ago, some of these probes detected what appears to be chemical activity that appears to be self-replicating. Some of it is based on a six-sided molecule that seems to mimic our carbon rings.”

Jimmy wasn't quite sure what some of these words meant, but he got the general idea. There was life in the sim! “That’s cool!” Jimmy exclaimed. Then, seeing his father’s solemn reaction, he asked “Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s definitely ‘cool’. In fact it’s far beyond our wildest dreams of what we thought we could accomplish with this sim. We already had about a 100 papers we could get out of it after the first couple weeks, just based on the physics of increasing complexity we were seeing. But this development casts a whole new light on things.”

“Why?” Jimmy asked.

“Because if what we’re seeing really is life, in the sense that we think about life in the real universe, then we’re breaching an extremely sensitive area. People react strangely to scientists who tinker with life. Between those who's religious sensibilities are offended at anything that doesn't follow their dogma, to others who would probably want to ensure the ‘rights’ of this life form to be protected, we’d be pissing off just about everybody out there who likes to find a reason to get pissed off.”

His father stopped his diatribe abruptly, seeing Jimmy’s mute and puzzled reaction. “Look, Jimmy, it’s like this. We’re scientists. And most of us have families. We’re not looking to attract the attention of the crazy people out there that might overeact to what we’re doing here.”

“Do you think they’d hurt us, like those people they killed last week?” The images from last week’s news of the burning house, the family caught asleep inside, was still fresh in Jimmy’s head.

“Yes, Jimmy, I do. Those poor souls were only drawing comics, for god’s sake! If people are willing to kill over cartoons, imagine what they might do to scientists who they think are playing god.”

Jimmy put a solemn expression on his face. He would try to be grown up, like he knew his father wanted him to be. “I understand, Dad. I won’t tell anyone – honest!”

His father gave him a tired smile. “I know, champ. That’s why I knew I could tell you what was going on, and that you’d understand.”

“So what are you going to do with the simulation?” Jimmy asked.

His father started to rub his eyes again. “That’s the trouble, champ. There’s some division on the team as to how we should handle this. Some want to shut of the sim now, take the data we’ve got, and spend the next 20 years publishing results. Others think that we should let this continue to play out, see what happens.” He looked at Jimmy directly “A few wonder if we have the right to end the simulated life forms, if that’s indeed what they are.”

“That would be like killing, wouldn’t it?” Jimmy pondered.

“Yes. It might. That’s why we’re debating it carefully.”

Jimmy pondered for a moment. “Your secret’s safe with me, Dad. But just tell me what’s going on, ok? It’s all so cool!”

His father smiled. “You got it, champ. Thanks for being so mature.” He slipped his specs back down over his eyes, and was quickly lost again in the simulation.


It was dark in his father’s study. Jimmy slipped in quietly, not wanting to wake anyone. It had been another whole week, and his father hadn’t seen fit to fill him in again on what was going on. If anything, he had grown more withdrawn and secretive.

Jimmy figured if he wanted to know what was going on, he’d have to look into it himself.

He slipped on the specs, and entered the interface to the sim. Using hand gestures, he worked his way through some of the initial choices. He ignored a number of paths he didn’t understand, like “Planck level parameters”, “Quantum foam”, “Baryogenisis”, “Fermion Analogues”, “Phylogenetics”.

A bit of random tinkering rewarded him with a display of a world from an orbital perspective, with a number of status panels surrounding the visual presentation. It looked very similar to the Civ X interface he had played for so many hours, as had his father and friends. They must have based the interface to their sim on their familiar game. Jimmy knew that game inside and out. This was more like it!

Although some of the panels were not familiar, there were a few that were. He was able to navigate the visual perspective down through the clouds to ground level. But everything was just a blur, just a dark brown writhing mass of motion.

Jimmy peered over the panels, and saw one with an hourglass. Moving the slider here seemed to slow down the motion, until finally he was able to make out some detail. Finally, with further adjustment, the motion came to a halt.

Awesome! There was plant life everywhere, although none of it exactly looked like any plants he had seen before. Skimming over the surface, he found water, mountains, trees…and what was that motion? He quickly zoomed back to where he had seen something moving down in the corner of the display.

An animal! It looked like some kind of bird, but it didn't have any wings he could see. And…something else…yes! It was carrying something that looked like a stick. Jimmy zoomed in, and could see that the 'stick' was really a more elaborate construction. A spear!

His animal was running up to another similar looking animal. Jimmy followed, anxious to see what happened next. The first animal put its stick right through the newcomer. And then again. And again.

It was killing the other one! The resolution was extraordinarily detailed. The bodily fluids, the shredding of skin, the clear horror and pain in the victim's eyes... Jimmy felt sick.

“Stop that!” Jimmy yelled. But to no effect. The killing went on.

Jimmy looked around at the panels, frustrated. How could he intervene? Nothing he did seemed to be oriented toward interacting with the real-time display.

Time! That’s it. He remembered he'd had to adjust the speed of the display to slow it down enought to see the details. The speed of time in this simulation must be many times that of the ‘real’ world. This was true too in most simulation games, since no one wanted to wait around for thousands of years for civilization to unfold at its normal pace.

He couldn’t find anything called “life forms”, but he did see a choice called “Avatars”. He had something called an avatar in one of the net social rooms he frequented - an online, cartoonlike representation of himself for others in the room to interact with. This must be something similar for the sim. He selected this path, and was given a list of greek letters to choose from. He chose the one at the top of the list, Omega.

To communicate with these beings, he would have to use his avatar somehow to act for him in the sim. There must be a way to preprogram a communication, then have the avatar deliver it in the blink of an eye it would require in the ‘simulation time’.

Jimmy spent the next hour fiddling with the controls of the avatar interface. He finally sorted out a mechanism for programming the avatar for certain functions. Although none of these involved talking, per se, Jimmy found others ways of interacting with the ‘natives.’

He was able to program the avatar to perform certain functions, like sending thunderclaps, or creating tornados. A little more tinkering showed he could “part the water” by simply modifying the elevation of the ground level temporarily in specific locations. He could cue the avatar to look for certain behaviors, then create the necessary effects that should condition them to run like hell when they did something forbidden by Jimmy.

He now had some sticks - what about some carrots? Carrots...hmmmm. He went back out to fiddle with some of the game parameters directly. He was able to figure out how to create food stuffs out of thin air by modifying the molecular parameters. He grinned.

"I wish it were this easy in the real world," he thought. "I could make anything. I could make chocolate dingles any time I wanted!" Jimmy loved chocolate dingles, but his mom would hardly ever buy any.

Jimmy smiled. He would use his power for good, like a comic book hero. These people weren’t going to grow up to be killers like those psychos that killed cartoonists. It was time to lay down the law! He got to work.


Jimmy was sitting in his room reading when his father knocked and came in.

“Do you have a minute, Jimmy?” his father asked.

“Sure Dad. What’s up?”

His father sat on the edge of his bed and looked somber. “I’m going to ask you something, and it’s important that you tell me the truth.”

Jimmy sobered. “Sure Dad. What?”

“Did you play with the universe sim?”

Jimmy glanced to the side, uncomfortable under this father’s gaze. “Um. Am I in trouble?”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Come with me, I want to show you something,” his father said as he got up and left the room. Jimmy followed.

They got to his father’s study, and he held up the specs. “I take it you know how to work these?”

Jimmy nodded.

“I have a recording queued up under avatar omega. You know what that is?" Jimmy nodded. "I was afraid of that. Please bring up the recording - I’d like you to watch it.”

Jimmy quickly went through the selections to the omega avatar. In the capture history, he found one near the top labeled “For Jimmy”. He selected it.

His viewpoint was back on the planet. Things had changed quite a bit. There were structures there, clearly shelters for the beings on the planet. The recording’s perspective took him inside one of these shelters where he recognized two of the beings similar to the animals he witnessed last time. In one of the bottom panels of the interface, there was text scrolling by, like a transcript. Jimmy watched, and read.

“Worry not, [noun360-endearment?]. [noun546-group name?] are angry. But we safe.”

“I worry. [noun546-group name?] come, hurt us.”

The recording skipped ahead a bit. The door to the house crashed open, and other beings dressed somewhat differently came rushing in.

“People talk. You not believe [noun66-high being?] [high volume]. You believe or die!”

Jimmy watched, sickened, as the attackers beat the couple. After the couple was lying still on the floor, the attackers then left and set their shelter on fire. He ripped off the specs, tears in his eyes. “Why are they doing that? Why are they still killing? I told them not to!”

His dad, eyes moist, came over to Jimmy and draped his arms around him. “Oh son. What have you done?” Jimmy started to cry.

His father patted his back, and murmured quietly, as if to himself. “We had such hopes that in this universe it could be different. That maybe, if we didn't interfere, there wouldn’t be real god-figures, and then there wouldn't be reinforcement for some of the extreme and fanatical hierarchical pathologies we see in other pack animals.”

His father paused for moment. “But I suppose we were naïve." He looked down at Jimmy. "It was tempting for others on the team, too. If not you, then probably someone else." He looked off again, as if seeing something beyond the wall. "Perhaps it was ever thus...”

Jimmy and his father sat in the darkened study, tears silently leaking from their eyes as they held each other, both mourning and not quite knowing why.

Jimmy suddenly looked up, hope shining through his tears. “But can’t we start the sim over again? Can’t we get a second chance?”

His father got a far away look in his eyes. “Maybe.” But then his shoulders slumped. He gestured toward the specs and shook his head.

“But they can’t.”

Friday, February 03, 2006

Will Chico's Carry Chadors?

Today the U.S. State Department took a position that the press shouldn't publish anything that might be offensive to any religious group.

State Department spokesman Janelle Hironimus said "Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable...We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices."

They were comics, fer (he-who-must-remain-nameless) sake!

We already know how tolerant Wahabi Islam is. Should our press not publish any negative comments about bin Laden, for fear of offending the faithful? Hindu's believe cows to be sacred. Should McDonald's Happy Meals be contraband?

How about religions closer to home. There are a number of fundamentalist Christian groups who are offended by abortion, homosexuality, profanity...the list goes on. Should our theaters not show "Brokeback Mountain" because it might offend these people? Should our newspapers not carry advertisements for it?

Comics are ideal for satire, for pointing out hypocrisy and deflating the self-important. Should we take Superman off the shelf because the Cult of Lex Luthor takes offense?

The official position of the United States appears to be yes.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dead Wrong

You're a cop. You encounter a hostile with a gun who starts shooting at you. What do you do?

Here are your choices:

  • Stand there until you get shot

  • Flee (and possibly get shot)

  • Shoot Back

I think it's reasonable to assume that the third option is the best by any sane measure. And it's reasonable to assume that if you shoot at a cop, you run a high risk of death by bullet. But some people feel that it is uncivilized or inhumane to kill people in this manner. And to their point, it is true that there are many instances of accidental shootings where the cop makes a mistake.

But wait - what if there was a way for the cop to shoot back, both saving their own life as well as those of innocent bystanders, and have a high probability of not killing the shooter? Enter Tasers.

Tasers are a wonderful invention. They disable the shooter as well or better than a bullet. They stop the danger. And they allow mistakes to be made without a lethal outcome - most of the time.

But it is this small percentage of times that they cause a death (the percentage is in debate, but the range of estimates anyone has ever put forth is 17-70 deaths since the introduction of the Taser in 1999 out of at least 40,000 uses. This puts a high limit at approximately 0.1%, or 1 in a 1000. And it is likely much less, since I used the highest death total I could find, divided by only the actual reported uses on file in the Taser database.

I can't find a similar stat on deaths by gunfire, but I'd be willing to bet a case of my favorite beer it's a tad higher. And the major injury rate would be staggeringly higher.

But here's a simpler way to look at it. If a cop were to shoot at you, for whatever reason, would you prefer he used a Taser, or his 9mm special?

I thought so.

So what kind of muddled thinking is it where some people want the use of Tasers outlawed?

Here's another great example in the So Stupid It's Amazing They Remember To Breathe category.

The US Army is sponsoring development of a laser weapon that is designed to dazzle (temporarily blind) anyone who is attempting to shoot at their helicopters from the ground. The device, being developed by ScorpWorks, is in the trial stage and has been shown to be effective. BUT...

The International Committee of the Red Cross is concerned. Aparently the 1995 Protocol IV addition to the Geneva Convention bans blinding laser devices. Guns, bombs, grenades...these are all ok. A laser that has any potential to cause permanent blindness is not.

Now again, I don't know about you, but if I'm attending a wedding in some village sometime, and a US Army helicopter believes it is under fire because one of the inlaws was crazy enough to fire his AK-47 in the air in celebration, I'd prefer to be bathed in the soft glow of coherent light as opposed to blown to bits in an 4,000 rpm minigun maelstrom.

But that's just me. I'm weird that way.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Talk About A Tough Dress Code

As Bush took the podium to make the case against tyranny, the Capitol Police were arresting representatives from the Axis of Evil.

The first, Cindy Sheehan, was sitting quietly in the gallery, in a seat reserved for her by Congressman Woolsey, wearing a t-shirt that read "2,245 Dead. How many more?" Although a statement of fact, it was viewed as a disruptive demonstration inside the Capitol. The charge was unlawful conduct, with a penalty of up to one year in gulag, er, prison. She was arrested, removed in handcuffs, and held for four hours and released on bail.

So there's a good question. How many more must die to support, er, protect us from tyranny, to defeat those who would repress dissenting points of view and stifle free speech?

The second, Beverly Young, the wife of 18-term Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Young of Florida, wore a shirt that read, "Support the Troops." While President Bush was at the podium saying "support the troops", Mrs. Young was asked to leave the gallery. She was not arrested or charged.

Aside from the easy sarcasm relating to the unequal treatment and first amendment issues, you gotta wonder what goes through the heads of the people who make these decisions. Is there just a really tough dress code, like at my kid's school? Does the supervisor for the Capitol Police have part interest in a t-shirt concession, and "no outside t-shirts, food, or drink" are allowed?

Whatever the reason, apparently Bush approves, since he's chosen not to comment on the actions nor make amends. Although maybe he'll campaign for Young next election.

As long as his wife shows up wearing a "We Love Young-Bush" t-shirt.

I Told You So

In so many debates, be it global warming, abortion, war, or other controversial topic, the approach among decision makers today appears to be to take a "side", then go as far out of the way as necessary to rationalize that side by discounting, misrepresenting, or ignoring contrary evidence. In most of these polarized debates, both sides use these same tactics. In fact, the "truth" appears to be uninteresting and irrelevant to the debates - it's just a matter of who can score points against whom.

Let's take global warming as an example.

I was reading about some new science that has measured a methane output from plants, and a follow-on blog post of how this "proves" that humans aren't responsible for global warming, and that the Kyoto Accords aren't necessary after all.


The real questions are:

  • Is there evidence of a rise in average temperatures/average climate energy, either regionally or world-wide?

  • If there is evidence of such a rise, is this a negative impact upon society, either now or in the future?

  • If there is a negative impact, are there any steps society can take to mitigate either the rise or the impact?

Those who believe there is no global warming take various positions - the evidence is lacking or the measurements are wrong; there's some evidence but it isn't caused by anything done by humans; even if there is warming, there's nothing that can/should be done about it. What I think most people on this "side" in the U.S. are really arguing is whether or not there is any responsibility for the U.S. to do anything about it, and how much if anything should be spent. I believe that underneath all this puffery is primarily an economic argument, masquerading as an ecologic argument.

Those who believe there is global warming also take various entrenched positions - the evidence is overwhelming and any contrary evidence is wrong; the warming is primarily caused by humans as opposed to natural causes; the warming will be the end of mankind unless something is done; the U.S. bears primary responsibility in causing the warming and in spending to correct it.

For the record - an examination of evidence available to me cause me to decide "Yes", "Yes", and "Yes" to the questions above, but with some uncertainty regarding which steps society can take to lessen the impact.

Regarding the plant methane discussion above, logic dictates that if plants have been giving off methane now, they have probably been giving off methane since before we started to measure global climate change, so any change in the system isn't due to plants unless there are dramatically more plants now than there were in the past. Since almost the opposite appears to be the case according to global imaging systems measuring foilage cover, then increases in warming must come from some other source(s).

The plant methane discussion is only relevant to deciding which steps are important to mitigate negative impacts (if there is warming and there are effective steps society can and should take to mitigate these impacts).

Risk management is a practice by which you examine the probability of an event, as well as the impact if that event occurs. Risk mitigation says that a low probability event with unacceptable impacts should still be mitigated, even if it may not happen. (In fact, Alan Greenspan was noted for using this approach to managing the economy. Seems to work pretty well, overall.)

So what should decision makers be doing? Recognizing that increased drought or higher energy storm systems (hurricanes, tornados) all have a negative impact on society, and that regardless of the cause, identifying ways for society to mitigate these impacts. The two ways to do this are to lower the warming trend, or to change construction regulation to accomodate the changes in weather patterns.

Let's get on with it.