synthetic zero

April 17th, 2010

My reply to Roger Ebert’s “Video Games can never be art“:

I want to write in response to your article because I used to work in the gaming industry, and my original interest in it was precisely because I wanted to make art. I left the industry mostly because I felt it had moved in a direction that was more or less antithetical to that desire; nearly every game being made today suffers from fundamental problems that prevent them from really rising to the level of art, even if they can be quite impressive games in their own way.

I agree in general with your dismissal of most existing games as art (at least as “good” art), I disagree, however, with your contention that games either cannot be art or won’t be art within the lifetime of living gamers. What I believe is that it is very difficult to make games which are art, but to assert that they cannot be art I believe is based on a lack of understanding of what differentiates a game from other existing art forms.

We can start with a reductio ad absurdum argument: A film could be thought of as a game without any choices. But something seems to go wrong the moment we add in choice: i.e., there does seem to be something fundamentally less satisfying, artistically, about a choose your own adventure novel than a regular novel. So obviously there’s something about interactivity itself which makes art problematic.

But not all interactivity. Suppose a great film critic (ahem) created an interactive library of films, complete with the option of selecting commentary or not commentary, rewatching certain film segments with and without commentary, watching films in an order selected by the user, and so on. One could argue whether or not curation is art but certainly I think it is plausible to suggest that collages, mashups, mixes can be considered art — and curating an interactive film collection I think could certainly rise to the level of art, provided the curation was clever enough. So I don’t think the problem is necessarily that interactivity itself dooms art.

But of course in this case, the individual elements of the interactive experience were not originally intended to be interactive. They each created an artwork that was intended to stand on its own. There is something about creating something noninteractive which makes it much easier to create art, and the interactivity in my example is comparatively unobtrusive and doesn’t affect the content of each piece. The choices don’t interact significantly with the worlds of each element (film); there is a natural relationship between the choices and what is being presented.

So this leads me to my theory about the problematic nature of interactivity and art. The problem, it seems to me, is that the way in which interactivity interacts with the game world creates a fundamental breaking of suspension of disbelief, because the interactivity itself forces a highly artificial and noticeable break from our expectations extrapolated from the nature of the world being depicted in the game. Part of the problem is that many games try to live within some sort of story world, or involve interactions with what appear to be creatures or characters. But creatures or characters in the real world behave in ways far more nuanced and complex than characters do in game worlds; the only thing we are able to simulate effectively and accurately is physics of objects, and thus games are getting more and more realistic in terms of their physics, but the interactions with characters remain completely unbelievable.

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April 17th, 2010

Transcript of the following week’s follow-up discussion at Kira on the somewhat radical interpretation of quantum mechanics that Jonathan Tash and I came up with:

Gilles Kuhn: so welcome to this week seminar we will continue last week discussion on mitsu interpretation of qm
Gilles Kuhn: so i propose that mitsu make a quick resume of his idea so to restart our stimulating conversation
Agatha Macbeth: Hi Gilles, Mitsu :)
Gilles Kuhn: hello agatha
Betz Darwinian: hello all
Agatha Macbeth: Rezzing slooooooooooowly tonight
Theodolite Wickentower: Hi Agatha, Cosmo, Betz…
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Theo
Gilles Kuhn: mitsu do ou wish to reintroduce your idea?
Mitsu Ishii: Well, it’s hard to summarize very quickly, but in essence the idea is that we can consider a possible approach to the interpretation problem as relating to information feedback loops a la Gregory Bateson, taken in a quantum context.
Gilles Kuhn: well synthetised
Gilles Kuhn: as last time i have a concern is that not a bit let say expansive ontologically speaking like btw everett interpretation is
Gilles Kuhn: and too in the same veein as information loops are object and thus subjected to the same problem of superposition of state what have they so special a status
Gilles Kuhn: ?
Gilles Kuhn: why have they*
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Ari :)
Mitsu Ishii: Okay, so yes, as far as the ontological implication they could be said to be disturbing, if you find Everett and similar interpretations disturbing.
Arisia Vita: Hi all
Gilles Kuhn: hello ari
Theodolite Wickentower: ‘fraid ya lost me… But I wasn’t here last time. I have an inkling about quantum physics and sorta understand the Heisenburg may have slept here… but what is the difference between Q physics and Q mechanics?
Mitsu Ishii: I don’t really have much to say about that other than this is to some degree an aesthetic concern, i.e., a matter of taste. I know some people find Everett and similar interpretations distasteful, however since I’ve sort of lived with them quite a long time I don’t really :)
Gilles Kuhn: only words theo
Theodolite Wickentower: :-D Ahhhh!
Arisia Vita: only words?
Mitsu Ishii: I might note that a friend of mine, George Weissmann, a physicist at UC Berkeley, also said that he and his colleagues (Henry Stapp) have a distaste for Everett-like approaches.
Gilles Kuhn: qm and quantum physic refer to the same theories of physiic that started with planck solution of the black body radiation paradox
Mitsu Ishii: However, as they began to investigate the various implications of the measurement problem, they began to realize there were fundamental problems that require a relative solution
Mitsu Ishii: so they started to investigate what they called a relational approach to QM, which is to say observations exist in relationship rather than objectively.
Sartre Placebo: hey everyone
Arisia Vita: Hi Sartre
Agatha Macbeth: Hello
Mitsu Ishii: Then when I explained my views to George Weissmann he realized that they resolve all the issues which they were trying to resolve with the relational approach
Gilles Kuhn: hello sartere
Theodolite Wickentower: Hi Sartre
Mitsu Ishii: so he had to admit that perhaps Everett does turn out to be a more elegant and parsimonious basis from which to begin.
Mitsu Ishii: For me, the Everett style approaches seem far simpler and less fraught with mystery than the other approaches — except they do not make it clear what a mind is or how it gets correlated with an observation.
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April 7th, 2010

I just gave a talk at the Philosophical Seminar workshop (hosted by Gilles Kuhn) of the Kira Institute (started by various academics associated with Institute for Advanced Study, Stanford, Amherst, Princeton, and others), in Second Life on the subject of an approach to an interpretation of quantum mechanics which my friend Jonathan Tash and I came up with. My name is “Mitsu Ishii” in Second Life:

Gilles Kuhn: hello melchi
Mitsu Ishii: hello
Kendust Vansant: hello everybody
Gilles Kuhn: hello kendust take a seat
Melchizedek Blauvelt: Hi Gilles, all
Bleu Oleander: hi
Mitsu Ishii: all right, so shall I begin?
Gilles Kuhn: ok so in this seminar we will “hear” a presentation of mitsu and yes please by all means do so
Kendust Vansant: my first visit here
Mitsu Ishii: Okay. So I assume most of you have spent some time already studying various interpretations of quantum mechanics
Mitsu Ishii: As you know, there is a fundamental problem, the measurement problem, which lies at the heart of QM.
Agatha Macbeth: Hi Gilles
Mitsu Ishii: hello Agatha
Gilles Kuhn: helo agatha
Bleu Oleander: hi Agatha
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Bleu :)
Mitsu Ishii: I’ll start with a brief reprise of two archetypical interpretations which I think can serve as grounding points.
Mitsu Ishii: So, first the Copenhagen Interpretation states that quantum wavefunctions which evolve in a unitary fashion “collapse” when subjected to observation.
Mitsu Ishii: So, for example, you have a wave function which exists as a superposition of, say, a particle spinning clockwise and the same particle spinning counterclockwise (spin up versus spin down).
Mitsu Ishii: We can only actually observe the particle in one or the other orientation of spin; it is either spin up or spin down, in other words.
Mitsu Ishii: Copenhagen says, the particle is in a superposition of both states until it is observed, at which point it “collapses” into one or the other state, entirely randomly.
Mitsu Ishii: The fundamental difficulty with this interpretation is brought out by Schrodinger’s Cat which I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
Mitsu Ishii: Briefly, to an external observer, the whole system: observer, particle, etc., is itself in a superposition. There’s “observer observes spin up” and “observer observes spin down” and until the external observer “looks into the lab” the lab, including observer and particle, is in a superposition of both states.
Mitsu Ishii: so the problem with Copenhagen is that there seems to be an infinite regress — who or what constitutes an “observer” ?
Mitsu Ishii: One possible objection is that in Nature it appears that only microscopic objects can be in superposition, though the theory says that there’s nothing that stops macroscopic objects from existing in superposition.
Mitsu Ishii: However, most recently there has been an experiment showing a macroscopic object, visible to the naked eye, about the width of a human hair, existing in superposition.
Mitsu Ishii: There’s no technical reason why that could not be expanded to larger and larger objects.
Mitsu Ishii: So at this point I’d like to mention the Everett Interpretation, which is one that many cosmologists favor, according to polls.
Mitsu Ishii: In the Everett Interpretation, there is no objective wavefunction collapse at all.
Mitsu Ishii: This interpretation is also called the “relative state interpretation”.
Mitsu Ishii: The basic idea in Everett is that rather than having an objective collapse, there is simply a correlation between a mind state and an observation.
Mitsu Ishii: That is to say, the particle itself remains in a superposition of spin up and spin down, but there is a mental state which is correlated with spin up and another mental state correlated with spin down.
Mitsu Ishii: Colloquially, it’s said that the universe “splits into two” universes, one with a measurement of spin up and one with a measurement of spin down
Mitsu Ishii: however this is somewhat misleading. What is more accurate is to say that the measurement of spin up is correlated with one mind, and spin down with another mind, but measurements are all relative to a specific observer/mind.
Mitsu Ishii: One could say, for example, that in this interpretation, when we look at the past, the past is not objectively present before a mind correlates with it.
Mitsu Ishii: so the dinosaurs, etc., don’t exist prior to digging up the fossil evidence, which then correlates your mind with the retrojectively projected past which has dinosaurs, and so on.

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April 2nd, 2010

I wrote this as part of a discussion on a private discussion board on the subject of why we needed health care reform now. We were discussing the spiraling costs, the fact that health care costs have been skyrocketing at twice the rate of inflation for decades, how unsustainable this was, how half of all bankruptcies are filed by people who HAVE health insurance but still can’t afford the bills, yet we were discussing why doing this now might not have been the most urgent problem we needed to solve, given all the economic problems we face.

There’s a very good reason why health care reform was essential in 2010: because there’s no chance in hell it was going to happen anytime soon after 2010. We are clearly at a high water mark in terms of having a Democratic Congress for probably quite some time to come, and by the time the next heavily Democratic Congress comes rolling along (ten, 15, years from now?) the disaster our country would have been in would have been incredibly grave. Obama, being someone who actually cares about policy, not just politics, didn’t want to preside over that kind of dropping of the ball. Clinton dropped it, and we couldn’t afford another screwup like that. Obama wisely, I believe, focused on this issue and managed to get a surprisingly comprehensive bill through. And all I can say to that is:

Fucking A.

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