Virtual Appearances, Virtual Realities

Couple of PSAs to start out with:

  1. I’m going to be participating in tomorrow’s Future of Mind Symposium, put on by the Center for Transformative Media down in NYC. (I will, no big surprise, be participating via video-link to reduce the chances of getting killed and/or arrested en route.) The event is free, but you gotta register. Also they’ve already had to move to a bigger venue so I don’t know how available tickets might be.
  2. Spacecat.


    I’ve already participated in another interview with Jasun Horsley’s “Liminality” podcast. This time, like the last, we rambled on so long that it ended up being a two-parter. As of this writing only the first hour is up; according to the page summary we discoursed erratically on UFOs, Michael Persinger’s helmet, abduction narratives and sexual abuse, J. Allen Hynek and close encounters, MKULTRA, the parliament of voices, ritual abuse and False Memory Syndrome’s disinformation campaign, Whitley Strieber & the Nazi-US alliance, Elizabeth Loftus, using satanic elements as cover to invalidate memories of abuse, and organized pedophilia in the British aristocracy. To name but a few. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing, so I have no idea how coherent or incoherent it might be. Think of it as sitting across from us at a bar after I’ve had a few drinks.

Gotta love what Jasun does to my author photos, though. He swears that any resemblance of that upper-right yellow blob to a seventies-era Space Invader is purely accidental.


“Nothing is real.”
—John Lennon

So. The latest variant on the classic double-slit experiment continues to support what all other such experiments have supported in the past, namely that whether something behaves like a particle or a wave depends upon whether it’s being surveilled, which demonstrates in turn that (in the words of the study’s author) “reality does not exist if you are not looking at it”, which in yet another turn means that nothing makes any fucking sense whatever. I’ve always clung to the belief that it all does make sense, but — because stuff that happens on quantum scales has no relevance to the process of natural selection up here in the classical world— our brains simply aren’t wired in a way that lets us grok such things intuitively. But let’s put that aside for now, because I think I might have come up with an explanation for all this quantum dumbness that actually does make sense at classical scales:

Nick Bostrom is right. We’re all living in a simulation. More, these dual-slit experiments suggest that (and here’s my little contribution, which probably has its head up its ass because I don’t know anything about this stuff but bear with me) we’re living in a simulation with a really low budget.

We are somewhere below the line

We are somewhere below the line

Most of you already know Bostrom’s argument. For the rest of you, his reasoning boils down to 1) if it’s possible to create simulations with self-aware inhabitants, and 2) if some advanced species is inclined to actually build such sims, then 3) there are probably way more simulated universes (>>1) than real ones (=1). Which means, based purely on the odds, that we are far more likely to be living in one of a myriad simulations than we are in a singular baseline reality.

I’ve always liked this thought. It fits in nicely with the whole Digital Physics paradigm that seems to have taken root in the Physics community. It jibes with the way reality seems to kinda “stop” below a certain scale of resolution (Planck Length and Planck Time may be no more than pixel dimensions and clock cycles). And if enough studies like Bean et al come down the pike— and if they hold up— the Simulation Hypothesis might even find its way out of the it’s-untestable-so-it’s-not-science swamp that’s mired String Theory for so long.

So what do we know about our own baby steps into building simulated realities? We know that when you’re playing Fallout 4, the graphics engine doesn’t waste energy rendering the landscape behind you. We know that when you put on your Oculus Rifts, they don’t paint the vista at the back of your head. Why should they? Nobody’s looking there. Oh, they keep all the pointers and variables on hand, sure. They’re completely capable of rendering the world to your left the moment you turn your gaze in that direction. But they don’t actually solidify any part of the world until someone looks at it.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all...

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all…

First-person gaming is a pretty good metaphor for quantum indeterminacy; nothing is real until observed. Maybe it’s more than a metaphor. Maybe we’re living in a cut-rate Bostrom sim, one that can’t afford the computing power to render everything in hi-res detail all the time— so it cuts corners, saves cycles only for those parts of the model that are being observed.

Maybe there’s nothing insane or counterintuitive about quantum indeterminacy after all. Maybe it’s perfectly understandable— depressingly familiar, even— to anyone who’s lived on a grad-student budget.

Shooting Back.

For at least three years now— probably longer— I’ve been worrying at a perpetually-unfinished blog post that tries to take an economic approach to murders committed by cops. I’ve never posted it, for reasons that should be obvious when I outline its essentials. The basic argument is that conventional attempts to reform police behavior are doomed to fail for two reasons:

  1. the cost (to a cop) of gunning down the average black person in the street is low; and
  2. the cost of not covering for your buddy when he guns down someone in the street is high.

I don’t believe these are especially controversial claims. We all know how rare it is to see a cop indicted, even when there’s video evidence of him choking the life out of someone or shooting them in the back. The astonishingly high rate of “equipment failure” experienced by body cams on the beat is old news. When you’re used to that level of invulnerability, why not indulge in a little target practice if you’re so inclined?

Likewise, the Blue Wall of Silence is news to no one. It is very difficult to get a cop to turn in their fellows because their very lives may depend on their partner having their back at a critical moment. You get a rep as a rat, your backup may just look the other way for that critical half-second when a real threat draws down on you. (I once compared civilian-police interactions to dealing with snakes in the desert: 95% may be nonpoisonous, but it’s still a good idea to pack an antivenom kit when you head out. No, said the person I was talking with, the cops are worse: with snakes, at least the nonpoisonous 95% don’t go out of their way to protect the other five.)

So: cost of murder low. Cost of turning in murderer high. These are the economics of Homicide: Cops on the Street. Seems to me, the only way to change the current pattern is to change those economic costs. For example, what if you increased the cost of not turning in a bad cop? What if, every time you didn’t turn in a badged murderer, you yourself stood significantly higher odds of getting killed?

What if we started shooting back?

Not at the guilty cop, of course. He’d be too well protected, too on guard by the time the word got out. But what if, for every cop who gets away with murder, some other random cop within a certain radius— say, 200 miles— was shot in reprisal? It wouldn’t matter that they were innocent. In fact, their innocence would be central to the whole point: to make the nonvenomous 95% stop covering for those “few bad apples” we’re constantly being told is the heart of the problem. The point would be to raise the price of collusion enough make those 95-percenters think twice. Simple economics.

From Ross, 2015.

From Ross, 2015. Risk Ratio (of getting killed by police): Black-and-Unarmed to White-and-Unarmed.

Of course it’s not justice; you’d be killing an innocent person. But we’re way past the point at which justice should have any say in the matter. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justice in the number of people who get gunned down by police on an ongoing basis. There’s little justice in the statistical finding that on average in the US, unarmed blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be gunned down by cops than unarmed whites (over 20 times as likely in some corners of that benighted country). Anyone who tells you that you must remain polite, respectful, and most of all nonviolent while your fellows are being mowed down like mayflies has either chosen a side (hint: it ain’t yours), or drunk about ten litres of Kool-Aid.

When it comes to game theory, tit-for-tat remains the most effective strategy.


I never published that blog post. Never even finished it. The solution seemed way too naive and simplistic, for one thing. In a world of rainbows and unicorns cops might do the math, realize that murdering unarmed black people endangered themselves, and change their evil ways— but if we lived in a world of rainbows and unicorns, cops wouldn’t be murdering with impunity in the first place. In this world, it seems a lot more likely that things would simply escalate, that police forces across the US— already militarized to the eyeballs— would go into siege mood, feel increasingly justified in shooting at every shadow (or at least the dark ones). They’d rather put the whole damn country under martial law than lose face by backing down.

It also didn’t help that I’ve known some very decent people who happen to be cops— one a 9-11 first responder, another who actually reads my books and writes his own— and while that wouldn’t change the logic of the argument one iota, random assassination is still a fate I wouldn’t wish on good people. Because when it comes right down to it this is wish-fulfillment, for all the economic and game-theory rationales I might invoke. It was born in my gut, not my neocortex. Every time I read about another Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, I want to start throwing bombs myself. (My greatest disappointment in Bruce Cockburn welled up when he back-pedaled on “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”.)

I want the fuckers to pay, and I know they won’t.

Oh, maybe this month’s killers have some rough times in store— the public documentation of those crimes was so incontrovertible that the politicians don’t really have the option of sweeping them under the rug. But viral videos of murder in progress didn’t send Eric Garner’s killers to jail. Nobody got indicted for the murder of Sandra Bland. The killer of Samuel DuBose is at least awaiting trial, but given the history of such proceedings dating back to Rodney King I’m not counting on any convictions. And those victims are the lucky ones, the ones “fortunate” enough to be gunned down on camera. What about the greater number whose deaths happen out of camera range, whose killers are free to make up any story that fits without fear of contradiction or scrutiny by a legal system which continues, unfathomably, to treat the word of a police officer as golden?

They keep getting killed. And we keep rending our garments and sending them our fucking thoughts and prayers, and the moment they block a road or stop a parade or express a fraction of the rage that is their due we back away and tell them that they won’t get anywhere with that kind of attitude. We trot out the same insipid MLK Jr. quotes about the virtues of nonviolence, about peace being the only way to achieve “dialog” or “brotherhood”— as if the people who have them in the crosshairs give a flying fuck about any of that. We tell them to have patience, to let the system work because we’ve got the evidence now, everyone saw it on YouTube, no way those fucking cops will walk away from it this time— and yet they do. Time and time again. The cops walk away from it.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Why should the black community care about alienating us? Why should they give us another chance to express our shared anguish and deepest sympathies, only to have us wag our fingers at them the moment we’re inconvenienced? A quarter-century after Rodney King, why should they believe that the next time will be different, or the next, or the time after?

What’s left to try, except fighting fire with fire?

That is where my game-theory imaginings came from: not some rational step-by-step multivariate analysis, but vicarious rage. And while I might be able to construct such an analysis to yield the same result; no matter how rationally I might to put that argument; no matter how many of you I might even convince— all I’d have really done would be to craft a clever excuse to let my brain stem off the leash. I try to be better than that.

Which doesn’t make keeping it to myself all this time feel any less like a betrayal of some principle I can’t quite put my finger on.


Anyway, I never posted it. And now the scenario’s been realized anyway: five cops dead, six others critical. All innocent, so far as we know (although if they were black civilians, I’m sure Fox would already be pointing out that they were no angels…) All shot in direct retaliation for the murder of black people, for the sins of their brethren.

The only deviation from my own scenario is that the shooter didn’t get away alive. They blew him up, used a robot carrying a bomb on its arm like it was delivering a pizza.

The usual aftermath. People “coming together”. Pastors and politicians urging calm. The same old Kingisms and Ghandi-isms popping up like impetigo sores all over Facebook. Everyone expressing support for the members of the Dallas Police Force, chiefed by a black man who has, by all accounts, turned that department into a model of progressive policing and perhaps the worst target Micah Johnson could have chosen. (Although it bears mention that that same progressive chief, and those same progressive policies, are apparently quite unpopular with the DPF rank-and-file.) As usual, none of this seems to have had much impact on the tendency of certain cops to gun people down and lie about it afterward (I mean, Jesus— by now you’d think they’d dial back the shootings on account of the optics if nothing else). So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except now, here and there across the US, these other people have begun threatening reprisals against other cops. There’ve been some actual shootings. Copycat attacks, you might call them. Or perhaps “inspired reprisals” might be a better term.

Micah Johnson is becoming a role model.

So what now? Have we finally reached critical mass? Is this a smattering of isolated blips, or the start of a chain reaction? Have we finally reached a tipping point, will black lives matter enough to starting shooting back? Given the stats on the ground, who among you will blame them if they do?

For my part, I’m more glad than ever that I didn’t make that blog post. At least nobody can blame me for the events of the past few days. (Don’t laugh— following my post on Trump’s burning of America, I had at least one long-time fan renounce me completely for “throwing [him] under the bus”, as if my thoughts might have even an infinitesimal impact on the unfolding of US politics. Some people seriously overestimate my influence on the world stage.)

I have no idea what’s in store. I’m not sure I want to find out.

All I know is this: if we are, finally at long last, starting to reap the whirlwind— no one can say it hasn’t been a long time coming.


By Dan Ghiordanescu.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

I cried for the Chimp, once.

I was there for his birth. I saw the lights come on, listened as he found his voice, watched him learn to tell Sunday from Kai from Ishmael. He was such a fast learner, and an eager one; back then, barely out of my own accelerated adolescence and not yet bound for the stars, I felt sure he’d streak straight into godhood while we stood mired in flesh and blood.

I didn’t feel the slightest hint of envy. How could I? He seemed so happy: devoured every benchmark, met every challenge, anticipated each new one with a kind of hardwired enthusiasm I could only describe as voracious. Once, rounding a corner into some rough-hewn catacomb, I came upon a torrent of bots swirling in perfect complex formation: a school of silver fish, in the center of Eri‘s newly-seeded forest. The shapes I glimpsed there still make my head hurt, when I think about them.

“Yeah, we’re not quite sure what that is,” one of the gearheads said when I asked her. “He does it sometimes.”

“He’s dancing,” I told her.

She regarded me with something like pity. “More likely just twiddling his thumbs. Running some motor diagnostic that kicks in when there’s a few cycles to spare.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will.” Although I never got around to it.

I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watched him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up light that even under lights designed to mimic the very sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes. When the forest grew too crowded the Chimp moved to some unfinished factory floor; when that started to fill up he relocated to an empty coolant tank the size of a skyscraper; finally, to that vast hollow in the center of the world where someday— a few centuries down the line— ramscoops and lasers and magnetic fields would devour dust and hydrogen like some colossal filterfeeding space whale, squeeze it all down to a small black mass heavy as moons. The dance evolved with each new venue. Every day those kinetic tapestries grew more elaborate and mindbending and beautiful. It didn’t matter where he went. I found him. I was there.

Sometimes I’d try to proselytize, invite some friend or lover along for the show, but except for Kai— who humored me a couple of times— no one was especially interested in watching an onboard diagnostic twiddle its thumbs. That was okay. By now, I knew the Chimp was mainly playing for me anyway. Why not? Cats and dogs had feelings. Fish even. They develop habits, loyalties. Affections. The Chimp may have only weighed in at a fraction of a human brain but he was easily smarter than any number of sentient beings with personalities to call their own.

One day, though, he didn’t seem twice as smart as he’d been the day before.

I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first. I’d just— developed this model of exponential expectation, I guess. I took for granted that the toddler playing with numbered blocks in the morning would have blown through tensor calculus by lunchtime. Now, in subtle increments, he wasn’t quite living up to that curve. Now he grew only incrementally smarter over time. I never asked the techs about it— I never even mentioned it to the other ‘spores— but within a week there wasn’t any doubt. Chimp wasn’t exponential after all. He was only sigmoid, past inflection and closing on the asymptote, and for all his amazing savantic skills he’d be nowhere near godhood by the time he scraped that ceiling.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t even be as smart as me.

They kept running him through his paces, of course. Kept loading him up with new and more complex tasks. And he was still up for the job, still kept scoring a hundred. It’s not like they’d designed him to fail. But he had to work harder, now. The exercises took evermore resources. Every day, there was less left over.

He stopped dancing.

The real tragedy was that it didn’t seem to bother him. I asked him if he missed the ballet and he didn’t know what I was talking about. I commiserated about the hammer that had knocked him from the sky and he told me he was doing fine. “Don’t worry about me, Sunday,” he said. “I’m happy.”

It was the first time he’d ever used that word. If I’d heard it even ten days earlier, I might have believed him.

So I descended into the forest— gone to twilight now, the full-spectrum floods retired once the undergrowth had booted past the seedling stage— and I wept for a happy stunted being who didn’t know or care that it had once been blazing towards transcendence before some soulless mission priority froze him midflight and stuck him in amber.

What can I say? I was young, I was stupid.

I thought I could afford to feel pity.