Maxis Thanksgiving

I have occasionally become addicted to certain computer games. Tetris or Bubbleshooter, Mahjong or deck-of-cards solitaire, Spaceward Ho! or SimCity: these diversions provide an endless stream of little dopamine rewards. Complicated games with stories and opponents, strategies and development: yes, I’ve gotten hooked on those too, but the parts I enjoy most are resource development, technology advancement, and territorial expansion.  While it is emotionally satisfying to reduce my opponent’s space fleet to debris (less so, the opposite), it is getting my civilization to the point of producing the affordances needed for that act, rather than the act itself, that most pleases me. Metaphorically speaking, the shooting of the bubbles (finding and mining the gold), the perfect nestling of the falling shapes (organizing the right mix of military and/or trade units), and the removal of matched tiles or stacking of ordered cards (aligning the technological development tracks) is what has kept me playing.

My favorite game of all must be SimCity. I’ve played it two ways: carefully husband resources and grow slowly until my initial stake hits zero just as net revenue goes black, then manage growth until I have savings equal to that original stake and repeat; or simply build willy-nilly until mounting debt prompts the game to offer a subsidized prison or garbage dump (eroding my popularity among the Sims), to offset my budget problems. Both strategies eventually end up producing a thriving metropolis, although I never seem to be able to get rid of the slums.

Here’s the problem: “just one more”. Just one more minute of play, just one more round. Just one more achievement. Pretty soon a sequence of “just one mores” means I have to work late into the night to get in my hours. I watch myself procrastinate and don’t care. I have a history of game-binging every few years followed by a dry spell of cold turkey. I’m better than I used to be, partly because I avoid having any sort of gaming environment installed on my personal devices, and I’m sufficiently paranoid of “free” or “no-install” game sites with ads and malware that their potential negatives outweigh their addictive potential.

A few years ago, never mind exactly how many, having (and wanting) no job yet owning a new computer, I thought I would install the latest version of SimCity and begin another game-binge. Imagine my surprise when, during the actual purchasing process, but before clicking “buy”, I learned that to play the game at all, I would need to be online with Maxis’s (the company that made SimCity) servers through the duration of the experience. Now, network gaming is fine, and I’ve done some of that, but the other online entities were other gamers such as myself, not corporate overlords seeking to monetize my behavior. This intolerable affront led me to immediately terminate the purchasing process and curse Maxis. However, after a bit of calming down (the adrenaline rage of having one’s dopamine desires thwarted is enduring), I became, instead, thankful. I knew that my binge, though highly enjoyable, would have been detrimental to accomplishing my daily and long-term goals. In fact, it was one of those emotionally intense moments that can be re-used: I can’t experience any gaming desires now without recalling that moment, and that helps me resist an allure that I know would cost many wasted hours. My revulsion must have been widely shared, as Maxis’s move alienated a huge cohort, and I think they never recovered. I wonder how many other gaming addicts are saying, along with me, “Thank you, Maxis!”

Theme Schemes

Since starting belikeme, I’ve been posting on Sunday mornings, aiming to create entries that stand alone, the blog becoming the topic only when I can make it more about me than it. I have mentioned being somewhat dissatisfied with my blogging approach, and that I am considering options for additional content. Until now, I’ve only been thinking about that, not doing anything, believing it important to first adopt a routine that I could follow reliably, and also having other work to occupy my time.

Now that I am confident that I can keep up a weekly pace, I hope to take some occasional steps beyond my regular postings. I don’t have a coherent concept for additional routines, but may first post an occasional Wednesday entry specifically about belikeme itself. I want to introspectively analyze my content and process, and draw some conclusions about what I should or shouldn’t change for future posts. One reason I write these posts is to find out what I actually think about specific topics. To find out if that even works, I need to reflect on what I wrote about those topics and how I wrote about them, and then write a post about that to find out what I actually think about how well writing about a topic to find out what I think about it actually works (sorry!). For these possible Wednesday posts, I am not planning to constrain myself with the one-page blurb format as I have with the Sunday posts. I will let them shape themselves, although I will still cut, cut, cut. I may also choose topics other than belikeme itself.

For the blog-as-topic posts, I imagine I will first catalog my subject matter. I already have a feeling I spend too much time on certain aspects of my personality, and I also that the one-page format is too constraining for certain subjects. Possibly, although not probably, I will re-write some posts in a more permissive format, or maybe collect certain redundancies into new (constrained) posts about that subject and have done with them. I’m confident that this process of introspective analysis will cough up additional Sunday post ideas (I currently have about a couple dozen in my Drafts folder), and that writing less constrained posts will give me ideas about structuring both the longer and the shorter ones.

I wasn’t initially trying to develop a particular style, simply letting my constraints, which force me to cut viciously, implicitly dictate some structure. Looking back at my first two dozen posts I notice some elements that I like, and others that I dislike. I like that I can cut from a two-page ramble to one page of coherence by removing irrelevant or repetitive material, but I don’t like the abrupt transitions and endings that cutting sometimes produces. With practice I may be able to smooth some of that roughness out. I like when I’ve accidentally tied the beginning and end of a post together after an apparent tangent in the middle, but though I don’t like feeling I need to do it every time, I do plan to do it more deliberately.

This isn’t poetry, so there’s no rhyme or rhythm scheme, but the two styles I see evolving might be referred to as “theme schemes”. The first might be denoted A -> B. I simply start discussing a topic and say a few things about it, a simple linear exposition that might find itself a component of a larger argument in the future, like a lemma in a proof. The second might be denoted “A ≠ B -> A = B (!)”. I introduce a topic, then a seemingly different topic, and then unify them with a surprising twist. This post is A -> B. You might think a one-page format wouldn’t support a large variety of theme schemes, but who knows? I expect that I will be experimenting with the concept.


Some of my experiences are post-worthy, others but note-worthy:

A few small steps. I was visiting Seattle, staying with “Radical”, from Everything, All at Once. We drove from his house to the Northgate park-n-ride to meet “Snow” (from that same post), whose bus arrived just as we approached. Just as we greeted each other, our express bus to downtown pulled up, one of the new (at the time) ones with middle doors opening onto a low platform, hardly a step at all, so welcoming. We sped along the express lanes, commuter traffic stalled in both directions. A few blocks to the ferry terminal and we stepped onto the boat just as they closed boarding behind us. I wish I could say that we saw orcas, but alas. I note that it is a habit, when I visit Seattle, to ferry over to Bainbridge, walk through the local park and on to the Harbor House pub, where they have a great selection of local microbrews, with an often outstanding brew on the rotating tap. Along the way we enjoyed one of my favorite sights, kingfishers hovering and braying and diving. The reverse journey was similar: onto the ferry and sailing with hardly a wait, then immediately onto an express bus back to Northgate, evading the afternoon commute.

The greatest shit story ever told. I had to go. Not just that: I was going to go, whether or not. No sooner had I besat myself (no “h” there, whew!) than it started. All by itself, then kept going, with no effort on my part. Going, and going, and going. “This will be stupendous!”, I thought to myself, wondering whether to investigate any of the long-expired magazines in the little holder alongside as I waited out the proceedings. Imagine my astonishment when, expecting to spy a glistening coil, I crouched around and gazed bowlwards: nothing but water! Imagine my further astonishment, after performing the initial cleaning gesture, when there was no debris to be seen! I commended myself for that on what must partly be due to a healthy diet, and concluded that a single cohesive “rope” must have emerged, navigating over the “P” trap to dangle unsevered, dragging the whole mass sewarwards once it detached. For some reason not everybody loves to hear me brag about this, so I hereby take it out on the internet.

Stormwatch. As related in House of Baloney, soon after moving to Seattle for college I ended up sharing a house in Wallingford, befriending especially one of my housemates who was part of a network of environmentalists. A few months after moving in, they invited me to go hiking with them in Olympic National Park. I was lucky enough to have the loan of my parents’ small orange Datsun pickup, and could thus transport the gear. These folks evidently did this fairly frequently, as they had a routine: stop at the Port Angeles ranger station to get permits and check conditions, then hit the Safeway on the far side of town for supplies. You had to know about that Safeway because as you leave town it looks pretty dead and at first you’d wonder whether you’d be stopping for last minute groceries in some expensive store with no selection farther out on the Peninsula. Hours of driving, then a few miles up the Hoh. Flat hiking amid giant moss-covered cylinders, the sky moss, the ground moss, moss enveloping deadfalls and boulders. At the Happy Four a great widening of the river allows you to walk well out into its summertime bed, away from the forest. That first night, moonless, cloudless, I gazed into the sky. I had never been so distant from light pollution. But no! A band of cirrus! An approaching warm front and its attendant rain? Wait! The clouds weren’t moving. Could it be? It could only be! The Milky Way! I had never seen it! I wasn’t knowledgeable enough then to have the kind of epiphany I had at Granite Lake, but I certainly felt the novelty and emotional impact.

Rowhammer of God

You may have heard that “we are probably ‘living in’ a simulation”. The conceit is that any species that both develops sophisticated science and avoids the depressing solutions to Fermi’s Paradox will inevitably develop vast computational abilities. Thus, they will be able to simulate entire universes at the physical level, including conscious entities such as themselves. With sufficient fidelity, this consciousness will be “real”. Given that even one such species would be able to simulate untold quantities of universes with conscious entities, the vast majority of conscious entities in the universe “must” be simulated ones. If this kind of speculation amuses you, I recommend reading Neal Stephenson’s novel Fall. If you choose to do that, you will thank (for values of “thank” that may include “curse”) me if you first read his Cryptonomicon and System of the World (why? Three syllables: Enoch Root). Most of the discussions of this topic that I have seen assume that we could never, by definition, determine whether we are simulations. Various objections to this assumption exist such as “all simulations are code; all code has bugs, find the bugs, prove the simulation”. I prefer a more constructive approach to objection.

Now let us discuss e-ink. Its crisp black and white display comprises pixels, each a tiny sphere, half black, half white. Each sphere can be flipped so that either the black half or the white half is showing, providing a programmable monochrome display. These pixels are quite large compared to the nodes laid down on today’s integrated circuits. I challenge you to imagine various possibilities here: nano-traces could be written on the surface of the pixel-spheres, each its own microprocessor; instead of spheres use tiny cubes (or other polyhedra), each face a different color; make them even tinier and faster, for high-res videos.

As you know, computers are “merely” bunches of networks of electrical circuitry. A memory bit is essentially a tiny volume of electrical field held steady and controlled by clever arrangements of matter. These tiny volumes are jammed so tight you’d think they would interfere with each other, but part of the cleverness is arranging things so that they are immune to the expected proximity effects. However, if a programmer arranges for, say, a whole bunch of bits surrounding a target bit to flip between one and zero according to some clever pattern, it is possible to force that target bit to flip, independently of the normal control mechanisms. This is known as a rowhammer attack. Similarly, you might recall famous stories, from the olden days of computing, about how clever patterns of reads and writes on one of those refrigerator-sized disk drive cabinets could exploit natural resonances of the system, so as to “walk” the drive across the room.

Now, any computer running a simulation of us is going to have to compute whatever we do convincingly enough that it matches our understanding of our simulated physics. If we can impose excess load or complexity, or exploit the equivalent of resonances in the apparatus, the outcome would appear to us either as new physics or the supernatural. Who knows what it would take, maybe cubic light years of arrays of quantum dot e-ink screens playing random cat videos. The basic idea behind these rowhammer and disk drive antics is that no physical system, as we conceive of physics, is immune to clever interventions. I recall certain dialogs from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, where the Tortoise repeatedly disassembles Achilles’ ever-more-sophisticated record players with carefully crafted platters. Let’s just hope the alien Sim-Universe players don’t reset to an earlier save if their computer room starts shaking.

Orbit All the Things

To get to a higher version number in the Space 2.x. series, we will need to go beyond simply (!) reusing rocket first stages, as SpaceX does with their Falcon 9 rocket (Space 2.0). A few other rocket companies are working towards partial reusability as well, but the approaching implementation of the very large and fully reusable rockets known as Starship and New Glenn is likely to so re-structure space launch that these smaller efforts (Ariane, Soyuz, Vulcan) will become inconsequential. Let us call this outcome Space 2.1.

Space 2.1, with its unprecedented reduction in launch costs, will likely exacerbate the orbital debris problem by triggering an exponential increase in the number of satellites. In early days of space exploration, little thought was given to the fate of spent upper stages and expired satellites. Today is different. These hulks occasionally collide, at high velocities, shattering into multitudes of fragments, each of which becomes a potential participant in future collisions. This situation leads eventually to Kessler Syndrome, analogous to criticality in a nuclear reactor. As we increase the number of expired objects in orbit, the collision rate increases to the point that a chain reaction occurs and an exponentially increasing number of flying shards reduces the expected lifetime of a launched payload to an interval far too short to justify launching it, essentially cutting off access to space, possibly for centuries.

Today, if you launch a satellite, you need to responsibly deal with the spent upper stage, and with the satellite itself once it expires. The main benefit from this regulation is to simply postpone Kessler Syndrome, as the number of orbiting objects still increases, all the more with Space 2.1. What is needed is an active program to remove expired objects from orbit. This is just as expensive, if not more so, as putting them there: you have to match orbits with your target, attach to it, and then burn propellant to give it Earth escape velocity or force re-entry. Fortunately, with Space 2.1, this becomes a lot cheaper, and realistic projects for actively preventing Kessler Syndrome can now be imagined, leading to a situation we might call Space 2.2.

Another consequence of the formerly prohibitive expense of space launch is that exploring the Solar System has mostly been a series of one-off probes, whether flybys or orbital missions. Orbiters give the best return, typically lasting a long time and providing a continuous stream of data about the conditions and dynamics of the body of interest rather than a snapshot. But orbiters are really tough to pull off. You need to pack enough propellant just to slow down and enter orbit – half or more of the total mass of the probe, mass that won’t be instruments. With Space 2.1 that is still the case, but at least the costs of all that extra mass are now much lower. An expanded series of Solar System orbiters can now be envisioned. Coincidentally, to pull off Space 2.2 (anti-Kessler) successfully, we will probably need to supersede the one-off mission concept, at least in Earth orbit. Once your anti-Kessler craft attaches to its target and burns propellant to de-orbit it, will also de-orbit, unless it does another burn to prevent re-entry. This additional burn requires having enough propellant left over from the original mission. With Space 2.1 it becomes conceivable to envision a refueling network, so that your very expensive anti-Kessler craft can, through frequent servicing by tankers, de-orbit dozens of hulks. It doesn’t take much imagination (although it would take a lot more engineering!) to extend this concept to maintaining a network of orbiters around all the planets and moons of interest, Space 2.3, if you will. Orbit All the Things!