Blacker Mirrors

The question of whether or not we’re living in a simulation has cropped up in public fora recently. The thrust of the argument is that future societies are going to love computers and love simulating stuff.

a technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power; if even a tiny percentage of them were to run “ancestor simulations”… the total number of simulated ancestors, or “Sims”, in the universe … would greatly exceed the total number of actual ancestors. [1]

So if we’re in a simulation it’s most likely being run by a far-future posthuman civilization. That’s totally fine by me. I’m not going to lose any simulated sleep over it.

But consider a similar, but very low probability scenario: near-future simulation.

Suppose that Moore’s law makes computing power more abundant over the next hundred years (or some pre-post-human time-frame), but simulating a universe is still extremely resource intensive. Simulations run on custom-built hardware and are only within reach for major governments and a few hedge funds. The number of simulated realities is low enough (<100) that there is active monitoring. The administrators aren’t interested in individuals, but the behavior of societies at-large. They want to win wars, craft policy, and beat the market. Like an applied version of Foundation’s psychohistory. This scenario is a little depressing, but doesn’t bother me too much more than the far-future hypothesis. It’s depressing, but not invasive.

The much more concerning scenario is that our simulation is owned not by BlackRock, but by a really well-capitalized Viacom. Our simulation is scoured by editors for juicy tidbits that are edited into compelling reality TV segments, a la The Truman Show. In this scenario, the most embarrassing internal monologues of every person on earth are played over laugh tracks for millions of fans in the base reality.

I am less concerned about free will and determinism than I am about being laughed at by someone higher up in the simulation chain.

note: Why is there a photo of Nick Bostrom on that page? What value does that add?

Shot on a Nexus 5X

Google has advertised the Nexus 5X around San Francisco, claiming a high quality camera. Here’s what the photos look like in practice.


  • Good for close-ups of people and dogs.
  • Good for landmarks in bright light.
  • Okay for landmarks in low light.
  • Bad for far away objects.
  • Bad in low light for candid shots of people. They move too much.
  • Okay for landscapes; best on clear days.

Setting up the Launchpad MSP430 development environment on OSX

A series of stale wikis and forum posts complicate the setup for cross-compiling code on OSX Yosemite 10.10.4 and running it on a MSP430G2231 microcontroller. It’s not hard if you know what to do.

Today, the fastest way to get code running on an MSP430 is Energia, an Arduino-like environment with a specialty language and purpose-built IDE. It’s actively maintained and seems to just work which is more than can be said for anything else in this ecosystem.

If you want to write vanilla C with no magic you need to set up the toolchain and debugger yourself.

1. Install mspdebug with homebrew.

brew install mspdebug

If you launch mspdebug you won’t find any devices because you’re missing the usb driver.

2. Install the MSP430LPCDC-1.0.3b-Signed driver from the Energia site.

A restart is required. Afterward, try sudo mspdebug rf2500 and you should be able to get a shell and see output like this:

Trying to open interface 1 on 006
Initializing FET...
FET protocol version is 30066536
Set Vcc: 3000 mV
Configured for Spy-Bi-Wire
Device ID: 0xf201
 Code start address: 0xf800
 Code size : 2048 byte = 2 kb
 RAM start address: 0x200
 RAM end address: 0x27f
 RAM size : 128 byte = 0 kb
Device: F20x2_G2x2x_G2x3x
Number of breakpoints: 2
fet: FET returned NAK
warning: device does not support power profiling
Chip ID data: f2 01 02

3. Install the pre-built open source gcc compiler from TI.

Download the msp430-gcc-opensource compiler for OSX.

You’ll have to create an account and swear you’re not Libyan, among other things. Install the compiler using the wizard and remember the destination path.

4. Create a project folder with some source code. There are some examples in <GCC_INSTALL_DIR>/examples/osx.

I tweaked one of the examples to work specifically for the MSP430G2231. Put them in the same folder.

5. Build the project with make. This should run some commands like this:

~/ti/gcc/bin/msp430-elf-gcc -I ~/ti/gcc/include -mmcu=msp430g2231 -O2 -g   -c -o blink.o blink.c
~/ti/gcc/bin/msp430-elf-gcc -I ~/ti/gcc/include -mmcu=msp430g2231 -O2 -g -L ~/ti/gcc/include blink.o -o msp430g2231.out

6. Copy the compiled program to the board.

sudo mspdebug rf2500
prog msp430g2231.out

7. Run the program with run. The red and green LEDs should alternate blinking.

Bonus fact: since the MSP430 has memory-mapped I/O, you can turn on the LEDs from the debugger with the mw command. Consult the appropriate header file in <GCC_INSTALL_DIR>/include to find the address of P1. For me, it’s 0x0021.

How to fix a Sennheiser PC 151 Headset

I bought this headset in 2011. A few weeks ago the mic started to cut out on conference calls. Adjusting the volume causes some crackling sounds and toggling the mic switch yields an unpleasant pop for the listening party. These symptoms suggest poor connections and isolation in the control unit. Let’s chuck it.

Here’s most of what you’ll need.

soldering supplies

  1. Cut out the control unit and throw it away.

Sennheiser pc 151 volume control unit

  1. Strip the wires carefully. It’s tricky to do this without damaging the internal copper wires.
  2. Burn the enamel off of the 5 internal wires with a lighter. Even the copper-colored wire has enamel on it.
  3. Solder the like-colored wires together. There are 5 in all: Copper, white, red, green, and red-green. It helps to have flux and a little helping-hands tool.
  4. You can check the connections with a multimeter on the continuity testing setting.
  5. Tape it up. I didn’t have any electrical tape but I found some surgical tape in a first-aid kit. It works fine, but is incredibly ugly.
  6. Test it out by calling the Skype test number, echo123.

Special thanks to my roommate, Aaron Cake, who let me use all his gear.

The Joker vs. Quantitative Easing

In The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker destroys a large pile of cash by setting it on fire. This demonstrates the Joker’s commitment to nihilism but raises a much more interesting question: What is the deflationary effect on Gotham’s economy?

To answer that we need to know if the money was actually going to be spent.

It absolutely was.

Before the events of the film, newly elected District Attorney, Harvey Dent, has spearheaded an anti-money laundering campaign but has failed to halt the business of the mob which has access to a few crooked banks under the control of Chinese financier, Lau.

Batman helps his cop friend Gordon identify Lau’s banks via drug purchases with marked bills. Lau’s banks are performing two types of services. The first is exciting: money laundering. The illicit local deposits in Gotham are “layered” by being sent to Lau’s company in Hong Kong and then “integrated” by being paid back to Gotham gangsters. The mob spends this money on the ostensibly legitimate parts of their business like real estate, capital goods (trucks, cement), and payroll which is spent on consumer goods (cannoli).

The other type of service the banks perform is boring: commercial banking. The mob’s deposits are on the books as cash reserves and count toward reserve requirements held against business loans, car loans, and mortgages for the general public. Easy credit helps businesses grow and is great for consumer spending.

Lau’s corrupt cops tip him off to Gordon’s raid and he explains to his ethnically diverse cadre of gangsters that he has moved the deposits to a secure location that is “not a bank”. This is bad for the general public. If the mob is unbanked, there’s slightly less credit available for the people of Gotham.

Remember that the film is set in 2008 which happens to be the beginning of the financial crisis. Gotham needs all the cash it can get.

Later on, the Joker kidnaps Lau and forces him to give up the non-bank location of the money. We see Lau tied up in a chair atop a mountain of cash. Assuming a billion dollars in hundreds is about two pallets, the total value of cash mountain is on the order of 10 billion dollars. Note that Batman had already forced Lau to withdraw the money from the banks so he shares some culpability for the deflation, at least in the short term [1].

Is this a meaningful reduction of the money supply?

WSJ says:

From December 2008 to March 2010, the Fed bought $1.7 trillion of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities [2]

You can sort of see that here in the dark blue line. Notice the vertical axis is in trillions of dollars [3].


So $1.7T over 15 months is $113B dollars a month. The Joker burned less than a tenth of that in the warehouse which isn’t terrible.

There’s also fallout from dismantling the mob that’s hard to quantify. A nontrivial number of henchmen, goons, and thugs will be out of the street if Batman gets his way. These people will have a hard time transitioning to the legitimate economy which systematically practices de jure discrimination against anyone with a criminal record.

But at the same time, the removing the presence of the mob in Gotham lowers costs of doing business for everyone else. If the Taco Bell franchise has to pay protection, it can’t hire a guy to keep the drive-through open on weekends. All told, the mob is probably a net negative for the local economy.

Okay, so burning a few billion dollars isn’t enough to cause serious monetary damage. In fact, it pales in comparison to the non-monetary effects of the Joker’s campaign. Terrorism hurts growth in 2 ways, says the IMF [4].

  1. Direct damage is physical and logistical. A) Businesses are literally exploded and can’t operate. Remember the hospital destroyed by the Joker. B) Decreased productivity lowers output (the National Guard shuts down all bridges and tunnels)
  2. Indirect damage is psychological. Decreased consumer confidence lowers consumption. The assassination of the police commissioner isn’t getting anyone into Gotham department stores.

In summary, Batman’s decision to take out the Joker has a sound economic rationale. He’s firmly on the side of growth. See if you can spot the omission in Gordon’s closing remarks.

he’s a silent guardian, a watchful
protector… a dark knight.

What he didn’t say is that he’s a protector of markets. Which isn’t surprising given Bruce Wayne’s nominal day job.


[1] Had the total amount been seized by the police under asset forfeiture laws, the cops would get to keep up to 60% for new toys while the remainder goes to the New York state treasury.




Additional reading

Aaron Swartz highlights political and philosophical dilemmas appearing in the film.