General

You are probably being simulated, to some degree

I recently released another video presentation on algorithmic trading where I state that in order for that to be practical, it’s necessary to have the ability to simulate activity on a market.

In the presentation, I also mentioned how pervasive the concept of computer simulation already is, using a few well-known examples, but the concept of simulation is a lot more fundamental and it has a lot more potential than what it’s being used in engineering, weather forecast or architecture.

Having a computer model of anything is going to be more and more necessary to be competitive at the global scale. This is both for big business and nations (not that there’s much difference anymore).

In the early 80s, the movie “WarGames” introduced me to the availability of personal computers, and also to the concept of simulation. At the center of the movie, there is a NORAD computer capable of simulating thermonuclear war scenarios, something that is probably the most believable and realistic feature of that fictional computer.

One can only imagine how truly advanced are high-end government-funded simulations today, which can be built to deal with just about anything, including in some ways our own lives. Nowadays there is so much personal data that is being collected and used by more than one entity, that it would be plausible to think that somewhere there is a simulation that can have a good guess on when I’ll be stepping out of the house to go to the convenience store next. If not today, it’s only matter of decades.

I should pause for a minute here and clarify the fundamental difference that I see between the concept of statistical models and a simulation (disclaimer: I’m not academically trained on any of this).

A statistical model gives a snapshot of a data set. Correlations can be drawn to reach conclusions, and simple extrapolations can also be made, as some form of prediction.

A simulation is more like an animation. Models for each actor are built, then they are iterated in a simulated timeline. A simulation system is inherently more powerful because it implicitly requires that elements at play are coded in a programming language.

電子マネー|自販機情報|ダイドードリンコIn my specific case, that simulation wouldn’t be able to guess what I’ll be buying, because of my refusal to use point cards and because I still use cash whenever I can, but more and more people use some form of point cards and digital payments.

It’s safe to say that these simulations will only increase in detail and accuracy with time. The reason why this is tolerated is, firstly, because there are some practical benefits to everyday life. The more a system knows you, the more it will be ready to cater to your needs.

The second major reason why this is possible is that we’re all fairly narcissistic. We want to be noticed, be that through some work that we do, some opinions that we express, or even to be tracked by some kind of Big Brother software. This is because from an existential point of view, it’s better to be spied on than to be ignored. I'm guessing that this is something that is ingrained at the biological level (animal species do this instinctively), and something that modern means of communication have exacerbated to an extreme.

There is a downside to all of this. The convenience and perhaps, warm feeling, of existing also as a lump of data in some digital cloud, can also turn into a massive inconvenience. Here comes the typical privacy issue, where any “good citizens” that has nothing to hide, sooner or later can find himself or herself on the wrong side of those with the keys to data and simulation of any individual that has been deemed as a threat. This will always be true, unless we now believe that any kind of progress is possible without some form of opposition, and unless we believe that those in power somehow like to play fair, because they are just a bunch of sensitive and altruistic souls.

That turned into a little bit of a rant, but that’s just an example of the power and potential repercussions that can come from the application of computer simulation when applied to a field that is perhaps less obvious, but potentially much more consequential to the human race.

Kibun Tenkan, VR edition

There's a useful term in the Japanese language. One of those terms that one adopts because it really fits nicely the concept. The term is "kibun tenkan" [気分転換] which loosely translates as "change of pace/mood", but it's used more when there's a breakthrough moment that leads to some change. At least that's how I use it.

Breakthrough moments are often more about a recognition of something that had been brewing for a while, and this is definitely the case here. I've felt for a long time that entertainment was a time waster that took me from doing things. Then a few years ago I was listening to a Q&A after a John Carmack presentation about his work at Oculus. In the presentation he talked about optimizing rendering for mobile, with a special focus on the Netflix VR theatre app.

This app places the user in a beautiful and cozy living room with a fantastic view of snowy mountains outside and a megascreen where to watch the Netflix content.

In the Q&A, an attendee perhaps naively, perhaps facetiously, asked to Carmack, what was the point of the app. Carmack paused a little and answered something along the lines of: "it's for those that want to experience that setting, but that cannot have it in real life" (paraphrasing here).

That both sounded like a plausible alternative, but also like an act of pity. It's one thing to want to experience something truly exceptional like recklessly flying a 100 million dollars jet fighter, climbing a mountain with no training, or exploring deep space, but it's pretty sad when VR becomes a surrogate to something that almost anyone could obtain by working hard and becoming moderately wealthy. Granted, money can't buy the kind of teleportation that VR offers, but who needs to jump around when you can spend a few real days in a real place ?

That to me was a "fuck this" moment. I don't want my passion for technology to become also a limitation of my ambitions in life. Nothing that really matters is easy to obtain. I'm not buying into this.

More classical entertainment, such as movie and TV series, can also be a huge time waster, but with VR, things can really go to the next level, in a bad way. If we also add the push now to create a metaverse out of social media, then we're talking of a potential to truly turn billions of people into atrophied zombies.

I'm all for innovation, but I can't see an upside to this. In fact, I think that this can be considered a colossal scam. The elites will continue to accumulate actual wealth, buying land, estate and commodities, while the general population is sold the virtual equivalent of those.

Many will buy into this, because the world is chock full of NPCs, but you've been warned.

Mass formations and loss of freedom

Last month I listened to an interesting interview titled "Why People WILLINGLY Give Up Their Freedoms" with Prof. Mattias Desmet on the Aubrey Marcus podcast. Here the focus was about "mass formation", a term used to define mass events and mass hysterias like we're experiencing these days.

The discussion can be seen on Aubrey Marcus's YouTube channel. I'm not sure how the rest of the channel is, but this podcast episode was very interesting to me, if anything because it confirmed my impression of how society moves and because it gives a framework to better understand what is happening.

Here's the full video:

Here's a list of key points that I thought were worth highlighting:

  • [@1139 s] -- People are happy to follow the narrative of perpetual fears because the anxiety that derives from it allows for a new social bond. Bonding being something that humans crave for, but that lacks in modern large societies.
  • [@1247 s] -- Mass formations are a kind of hypnosis. Hypnosis is possible when someone is made focus on a narrow view of things (i.e. a virus), and away from a broader perspective (i.e. loss of freedoms). See for example anestesia via hypnosis, where the mind of the patient is being focused to the point that he/she can't feel pain in a certain spot.
    Here Aubrey notices that ability to focus on something and ignore the broader picture is important for productivity and for mental sanity, so it's a double-edged sword.
  • [@2067 s] -- Raw intelligence of the individual doesn't matter. In a mass formation, the collective mind takes over and anyone can lose the ability to be a critical thinker.
  • [@2170 s] -- In a mass formation, only about 30% of the people are hypnotized in the beginning. Then there's an additional 40% that goes along, even if they may not agree, because they don't want to or are afraid to go against this vocal minority. The remaining 20-30% are those that do speak out one way or another.
  • [@2645 s] -- It's essential to continue to speak out against the narrative at the root of a mass formation. The hypnosis may not disappear, but it can become less deep, which may be just enough to avoid extreme deterioration of the situation (see: dehumanization, labeling as "domestic terrorist").
    Note: It's also my conviction that one should never expect for a person to change his/her mind on a topic just from a new batch of information. It's a slow process of detoxification that requires time to take shape.
  • [@3664 s] -- Sacrifice makes for an even stronger social bonding, and it's glorified. Giving up on Christmas celebration with families, wearing masks and social distancing are all big and small sacrifices that make people feel closer to each other. It becomes a ritual, and people can go to great lengths and perform extreme sacrifices while under the spell of this mass hypnosis.
    Note: As an example, see the brotherhood that derives from combat during wars. Sharing danger makes for very strong bonding.
  • [@4224 s] -- In 1953, Hannah Arendt said that even though we've seen the decline and fall of Nazism and Stalinism, the trend towards totalitarianism hasn't stopped, and very soon we'll see a form of world-wide totalitarianism that is lead no longer by strong leader figures, but by technocrats and bureaucrats.
    Nevertheless, totalitarianism is always self-destructive and it's likely that now we'll just have to wait for this new form of totalitarianism to rise and fall. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to be on the sidelines while this happens.

The biggest question

It's hard to believe how little concrete understanding there is about the fundamental question of existence.
This is probably because it's such a deep question that can't be verified one way or another, and so it's relegated to philosophy and religions. Much debate can be found, but not in an academical and scientific fashion.

Here I'd like to make a case, based on what we know today and from my very personal perspective.

One popular suggestion these days is that we live in a simulation. This may sound scientific, but I think that in the end it's a more modern and technical way of saying that "there is a God", so much for ditching religions.

Regardless of the hype and popularity, I think that this is a theory worth entertaining, and in fact it's the most plausible today, though it would not satisfy the question completely, because at the deeper level there would still be the matter of "who created the creator (of this simulation)", but it would still be a step forward (or upward).

The concept of life as a simulation was popularized in modern times by movies like "The Matrix" and "The Truman Show". The latter wasn't about a full-sensory digital simulation, but it showed a perspective of a life that was constructed in a physical setting that created the appearance of a world more complex than what it really was.

More than movies, I think that the biggest case for the idea of living in a simulation is due to the recognition of what we've been able to do with digital computers and video games.
Games are something that is very close to me. My involvement in game development came early in life and was generally a technical one, mostly focused on the real-time graphics side of things. I was always interested in simulating realistic experiences to the limit of what the hardware was capable of.

Computer graphics in games is very much about using a limited set of resources to give an impression of reality. Major optimizations are used, such as using hollow meshes of triangles that are built with just enough geometry and textures to look as realistic as possible at an interactive frame rate.
This is where "The Truman Show" analogy comes in. In the movie, the protagonist is fooled into living in what is a very extensive and complex movie set, where even the sky is artificial.

When Truman Touches the Wall @ Dale McGowan

This is also what happens in video games, where virtual objects are created at a level of complexity that is necessary just to fool the player. Most games can get away with using a textured dome, (or just a cube, with some perspective trickery) to represent distant objects such as mountains and the sky, without the player necessarily understanding the level of approximation that is used for those virtual object.

Imagine it in world space:

In practice, players today can still spot graphics artifacts due to limitations of the hardware, but these limitations are fast disappearing as hardware evolves and 3D rendering gets closer to be indistinguishable from reality. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we're going to simulate our own reality to a truly unbelievable degree anytime soon. My suggestion is that it's become obvious to us how relatively easy it is to construct relatively complex virtual worlds. It's certainly easier to create virtual sub-realities than to evolve in the physical world with all its limitations.

From the perspective of a software engineer and game developer, it seems obvious that given the progress that we're making into creating more and more complex virtual worlds, we are likely to live in a virtual world ourselves. In fact, to think that we're not living in a simulation, is probably akin to thinking that Earth is at the center of the Universe. It would be arrogant to establish that our reality is just too special not to be a sub-reality itself.

This would also satisfy the observation that complexity can be captured in a fractal structure (self-similarity across different scales). Of course, an observation in this reality doesn't necessarily have to be true at higher realities, but my guess would be that higher realities would be structured on something that is more evolved than a fractal, not less.

8 Stunning Fractals Found in Nature | The Science Explorer

One counter argument to the idea of being in a simulation is that what is being simulated down to the atomic level is just too complex and it would consume too many resources. First of all, it's more likely than not that this simulation would be generated by entities in a universe that is far beyond what we can imagine and that doesn't respond to our same laws of physics. In that case, to our creators we would be more like a bunch of pixels in the Game of Life.

conway's game of life | Jumptuck

Secondarily, we ourselves have an incredibly limited perception of the potential matter in the know Universe. We have been observing celestial bodies for a long time, and we have been able to determine their movement and mass, so, in a sense we can reach very far with our deductive abilities, however that is still an extremely low resolution observation, and even as we expand our abilities to observe more in detail, it's a practical impossibility to truly inspect the far corners of the universe at the full purported resolution of the matter.

Let's not forget also how convenient are the fundamental laws of physics that restrict the speed at which particles can move (speed of light), restrict the resolution of matter (Planck constant) and how determinism is lost when entering quantum mechanics. This reminds me how in software engineering determinism can be dropped in favor of performance, like when converting an algorithm to work for multi-threading or when processing data in a lossy fashion.
Perhaps these known limitations of nature are due to our current comprehension, but they may also be hard limitations due to the complexity of the machine on which a software is running. In a sense, the conclusion by which information in this universe simply can't travel faster than the speed of light, is similar to having reached the walls of the stage in The Truman Show.

Is this all there is, or are we boxed-in from a deeper reality working on a different plane of existence ? My guess is that we are boxed-in, and we are some sort of emergent intelligence with the goal to solve the riddle and find a way out.

14 Films Sets You Can Visit at Universal Studios Hollywood ...

The flaw in this argument is that it's a very egocentric one. Here I'm assuming that humans are the key characters, but perhaps even though we're capable of guessing what the game may be about, we may still not be the species in this universe (biological or otherwise) that is equipped to solve the riddle. Maybe we have to make more powerful computers to solve this question, or maybe other life forms are the better candidates.

Shameful death for the non-compliant

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, so here it is.

With the current coronavirus situation, one thing that truly upsets me is how death has been exploited and honor of those that die has been tarnished.

I've seen news of people that have seemingly died of complications related to COVID-19, and that were portrayed as poor idiots that didn't jump head first into getting COVID shots. In some cases members of the family would comment and smear the perished family member, practically outing him as a dumb victim of conspiracy theories.

A shameful death is definitely a very unpleasant scenario, and I wonder how many people get vaccinated just so that if they died by COVID, they won't be considered recipients of the Darwin award.

The press is always going to be slimy, but family members should think twice before backstabbing their beloved ones after they can't defend themselves. In one specific case, a man in the UK died and his daughter was used to admonish those that, like her father, waited to getting his jab, while he tried to inform himself... what a disgraceful thing to do. The daughter totally missed the lessons about critical thinking and respect for the dead, and instead jumped right on board with the establishment (BBC) in shaming her own father.

Institutions and their brainless lapdogs (journalists) are practically blackmailing people into compliance. One more reason to be skeptical about everything.

Adopt a conspiracy theorist

For a while now I've come to the conclusion that it's important to occasionally listen to the so-called conspiracy theorists to see what's their take on just about any issue.

Of course in general if you had to bet your life, you'd be better off following some official guideline more often than not (stress on "more often"). However it's also important at some point to scrutinize things, so to keep in check those leaders that are tasked to serve the population that depends on them. This is even more important when talking about leaders that were never elected and simply came to be by virtue of raw economical power.

It's important first to understand how one should go about judging information. One big issue is that people tend to see what's true or not in a binary way, however most issues are not binary. Objectiveness is hard to reach because one first needs to define the domain of what is that bit of information that one is trying to definitely categorize as truth, and then one has to make sure that information that allows for that categorization to be made, is indeed reliable.

Different domains, perspectives and resolutions can make it much harder to come to a conclusion that is satisfactory.
To establish what is true, it's then clearly a complicated and lengthy task that we end up delegating to leaders, which appoint experts that use their knowledge and, ideally, also their best judgment.

People from the outside are assured that this is a very professional, ethical and honest structure resulting from thousands of years of civilization, and that it's peak objectivity. In reality however there's corruption at every level. Leaders tend to be self-serving and experts tend to support those leaders that are a vehicle to their ambitions, be those ambitions for wealth, fame or both.

Institutions and leaders that guide them, have a great impact on everything. Corruption can be found at any level in this chain of delegation. People are promoted not because they are honest, but because they've served well those that have appointed them, and not necessarily because they have served well the population that has elected those that have appointed them.

In all this, the "conspiracy theorists", those that are skeptical of everything, are a necessary component, because they will on occasion point so some truths (often in plain sight) that are otherwise never even considered by the general public.

Brains to computers, not happening

The idea of somehow uploading the state of the brain into an artificial one is often mentioned not just as science fiction, but also as some sort of transhumanist hope that is being worked on. This may be an interesting exercise to entertain, a research goal to pursue, but it's definitely doomed to fail, because it's a flawed idea on multiple levels.

The brain is a physical and very dynamic object, one built by cells which are living things. Neurons are destroyed continuously and are partly generated. Nutrition, physical trauma and many more subtle things, all affect the continuous changes of the brain. Neurons in time can establish different connections... everything is so dynamic and biological, it's a system so complex and so dependent on external environment that it's practically impossible to somehow recreate the necessary complete system that would operate, respond and evolve even remotely like the actual thing.

So, a digital brain that by some incredibly futuristic technology would be able to initially mirror an original biological brain, would progressively diverge from the original brain, because of fundamental mechanics but also because it couldn't possibly be exposed to the same effects, unless the digital brain would be so advanced that would for example be able to sample the blood of the host for drugs and alcohol and simulate those effect that a normal brain would have... but here we'd be talking about an understanding and a simulation so complex that by the time that one would be able to achieve that, the human brain would be practically irrelevant.

Of course one could simply decide to switch to a digital brain and go along with its relatively crude simulation, perhaps unable to process external effects related to what one ingests and breathes in. That would definitely quickly become something very different, where, paradoxically, the potential plasticity of that artificial brain may have to be limited to mimic the real thing using some arbitrary and approximative parameters. That is assuming that one may even reach that level of sophistication that today is unthinkable.

In conclusion, the digital brain replacing a biological one is just a flawed idea. If the goal is some sort of immortality, then one either tackles it from a biological point of view. The alternative would be to recreate a perfect biological simulation, basically a small virtual universe that mirrors the laws of nature, while also operating under the laws of nature (hard/impossible task in itself). Otherwise one simply decides to switch into some technology that is incredibly advanced, but simplified, and that is tweaked to mimic the real thing with some sort of containment programming put in to avoid that the artificial brain takes its own wild evolutionary path... which doesn't sound fun at all.

The “rich enough” fallacy

How many times have we heard about the ultra-rich wanting to "give back", saying that they just have too much money and that they feel the need to get rid of it.

That's of course a lie. It's just a way to avoid paying taxes, allocating that wealth instead towards charitable organizations that in exchange will accept to sustain whatever cause the donor wants to push for. It does make sense not to want to give your money to the government, but it is unfair that ultra-rich are able to do this while the rest of the population can't. Of course everyone can donate, but that doesn't buy them power and influence.

The point though it's that there's no such thing as feeling like you have too much wealth and that you have to give it away. It takes a lot of effort to reach a certain amount of wealth. One needs to own 10 millions before owning 100, and then needs to own 100 and 500 before owning 1 billion.

There's plenty of time and plenty of chances to stop becoming that rich in the course of the many years that it takes. It also takes a special drive to want to accrue that much wealth and the power that comes with it.

The general population can't normally wrap their heads around the idea of wanting more wealth and power for its own sake (or more likely, as a competition). When you live dreaming of owning a couple of houses and a couple of sports cars, you may think that anything beyond that is just gravy.

That's not how it works. To become extremely wealthy it takes a special kind of drive, the kind of drive that doesn't just dissipate. In fact, with time one may feel inclined to think that he's some kind of god figure, and may start to feel entitled to mold the world to his own image. This works for politicians as well, although those tend to settle for perhaps less actual power, but more visibility.