Monday, January 4, 2010

The Devil in the Details



The value of simulating as many elements of a world as possible is, shall we say, non-obvious. One is inclined to say that simulating more elements will naturally make the simulation more realistic, but there are particular reasons for this, and if you don't simulate the rules and physics well enough, you're not doing much simulating.

What I'm driving at here is the idea of complexity. The interactions between microscopic objects in an environment can often yield macroscopic changes. As one example, consider a breakable wall. In a simple 3D environment like Duke Nukem, that wall might be represented by a single polygon, which can receive a certain amount of damage from weapons before the whole thing breaks. In real life, that wall is composed of a series of bonded molecules, and it is going to break differently depending on what type of wall it is. If it is made of rock, forming a crack at one particular part of the wall, and focusing one's attention on that crack, could be enough to bring down an otherwise impenetrable wall. Similarly, if the wall is made of wood, forming one hole in it can be enough to destroy the rest of it.

For the given example of simulating a world for one man, in order to learn his secrets, these things might not be very important (unless you have to make sure he doesn't catch on that he is in a simulation). But if your attempt is to make a kind of "what if" hypothetical in a computer model, and get as good of an idea as possible what would happen in the real world, you need your simulation to be as isometric as possible. The main uses for supercomputers are exactly these kinds of situations, where the details are phenomenally important: quantum physics; molecular modeling; weather forecasting; and physical simulations of things like airplane wind tunnels, and nuclear explosions.

For any given simulation, there can be a value in simulating as many things as possible. But whoever designs the simulation needs to decide where the "diminishing returns" set in, where you have a level of accuracy that is not actually going to be more informative. In our simulation where we want to know where the bodies are, simulating anything beyond Earth is going to be unnecessary. We also don't need to simulate any of the people that our "player" is never going to come into contact with.

If you wanted to simulate the interactions between a population of people, though, you would want to simulate everything about those people, down to their bodily functions, because the fate of the world could very well rest on whether John Hammersmith of Liverpool, England needs to take a poo at 12:54 pm of next Tuesday.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In the future, everyone will have already been famous, and appear on a "Where Are They Now?" special



Andy Warhol once said, "In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Our perception of how that happens is often that the person did not exist before they became famous, and once they are no longer famous, they cease to exist.  Of course, we know in our heads that this is not true. Each of those people had some kind of growing up, and when the cameras are off, those people will go on leading whatever lives they did before, almost as if nobody ever saw them on TV.

If you perceive a glut of "Where Are They Now?" specials about former celebrities, this is because there is a glut of former celebrities.  These specials are often looked upon as yet another way that our obsessive media likes to get into the nooks and crannies of everyone's life. But another way to look at it is that it is an acknowledgement that, when we weren't looking, the former celebrity continued to live whatever life they had before. They did not cease to exist simply because the nation was not watching them.

This does not quite complete the task of making celebrities human, though. The thinking becomes "people become human when they are no longer celebrities." Or to paraphrase the Red Queen, "Human tomorrow and human yesterday, but never human today."

In John Hodgman's "More Information Than You Require," he has a few stories about being a "famous minor television personality," and to hear him tell it, his niche fame yields situations that are more bizarre than they are annoying. At an event, he is approached by a large black man who compliments him on how much he admires Hodgman's work. After a few moments, Hodgman realizes that he is standing in front of Chuck D, a man for whom he shares mutual admiration.

On one occasion, when he goes into an Apple store, someone recognizes him, and then suddenly the whole store is freaking out. On a different occasion, when he goes into an Apple store, not even the cashier handling his credit card realizes who is in front of him.

So, if you ever become famous, try to make sure that it's niche fame where the only people who recognize you are your actual fans. I think that's the lesson here. I'm not entirely sure.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reviewing 2009



At the end of the year, people like to play the song "Long December" by The Counting Crows. It isn't difficult to get people to empathize with the line, "It's been a long December, and there's reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last." It is definitely our hope for the next year to be better than this one, because if each year is better than the last, that's an upward trend! Eventually things are going to be inconceivably amazing! The rest of this song seems to imply something different: someone he loved died in December, and it would be difficult for the coming new year to be worse than the last. There is no doubt that it is a sad song. But we'll get to that later.

Ushering in a new calendar year seems like a good opportunity to review the previous year, because, even though the way the months are marked off may be a little arbitrary, you ought to review the year at some point.

The most significant factor of 2009 that I can think of is being in a poor financial situation. Right about the time that I needed to start paying back student loans, my employers started cutting my hours. Suddenly, the money I was usually able to save up each month just wasn't there anymore.

But this year I was able to start breaking my video game addiction. It's definitely a tough thing to do--I have played a lot of video games in my life, ever since I was about five years old. They were not exactly a good use of my time even then, and now, in my adult life, I feel like they are just a giant time sink. Anything I could call an "accomplishment" in playing these games is going to be meaningless to non-players (for instance, a Kingdom of Loathing character with 50 ascensions), and there are few skills one can develop that can be applied to other areas of one's life. Generally speaking, the skills involved in playing video games are useful only for playing other video games. So, even if I did not learn guitar last year the way I wanted to, that's not much of a big deal to me, because I have developed different hobbies and creative outlets that do not involve video games.

Around November, I started expanding my social circle a lot, and meeting new people, leading up to what became a "long December" for me. I was getting out of my house on a consistent basis, going to parties and what have you, and there was a stretch of about two weeks where I had to force myself to stay home and "recharge my batteries." I am opening up 2010 with new people, new experiences, and new beginnings. It is a wonderful thing.

And I'm not even going to talk about my dating life. It is the kind of "it's complicated" that involves charts and diagrams. It would only confuse you.