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March 13, 2007

'Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?' — by Nick Bostrom


"Nick Bostrom, a young Swedish philosopher at Oxford who thinks it highly probable that all of us are mere computer simulations. In other words, he thinks that the science-fiction film "The Matrix" may well be fact and not fiction. Mr. Fearn informs us that Mr. Bostrom used to work for the CIA."

From Anthony Gottlieb's February 23, 2007 Wall Street Journal review of Nicholas Fearn's new book, "The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions."

The abstract of Bostrom's paper, "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?", which appeared in Philosophical Quarterly in 2003, follows.


    This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.


But perhaps you prefer the full monty.

Okay, then, here's the paper in its entirety.

    Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?

    I. Introduction

    Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea. The rest of this paper will spell it out more carefully.

    Apart from the interest this thesis may hold for those who are engaged in futuristic speculation, there are also more purely theoretical rewards. The argument provides a stimulus for formulating some methodological and metaphysical questions, and it suggests naturalistic analogies to certain traditional religious conceptions, which some may find amusing or thought-provoking.

    The structure of the paper is as follows. First, we formulate an assumption that we need to import from the philosophy of mind in order to get the argument started. Second, we consider some empirical reasons for thinking that running vastly many simulations of human minds would be within the capability of a future civilization that has developed many of those technologies that can already be shown to be compatible with known physical laws and engineering constraints. This part is not philosophically necessary but it provides an incentive for paying attention to the rest. Then follows the core of the argument, which makes use of some simple probability theory, and a section providing support for a weak indifference principle that the argument employs. Lastly, we discuss some interpretations of the disjunction, mentioned in the abstract, that forms the conclusion of the simulation argument.

    II. The Assumption of Substrate-Independence

    A common assumption in the philosophy of mind is that of substrate-independence. The idea is that mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is nor an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.

    Arguments for this thesis have been given in the literature, and although it is not entirely uncontroversial, we shall here take it as a given.

    The argument we shall present does not, however, depend on any very strong version of functionalism or computationalism. For example, we need not assume that the thesis of substrate-independence is necessarily true (either analytically or metaphysically) – just that, in fact, a computer running a suitable program would be conscious. Moreover, we need not assume that in order to create a mind on a computer it would be sufficient to program it in such a way that it behaves like a human in all situations, including passing the Turing test etc. We need only the weaker assumption that it would suffice for the generation of subjective experiences that the computational processes of a human brain are structurally replicated in suitably fine-grained detail, such as on the level of individual synapses. This attenuated version of substrate-independence is quite widely accepted.

    Neurotransmitters, nerve growth factors, and other chemicals that are smaller than a synapse clearly play a role in human cognition and learning. The substrate-independence thesis is not that the effects of these chemicals are small or irrelevant, but rather that they affect subjective experience only via their direct or indirect influence on computational activities. For example, if there can be no difference in subjective experience without there also being a difference in synaptic discharges, then the requisite detail of simulation is at the synaptic level (or higher).

    III. The Technological Limits of Computation

    At our current stage of technological development, we have neither sufficiently powerful hardware nor the requisite software to create conscious minds in computers. But persuasive arguments have been given to the effect that if technological progress continues unabated then these shortcomings will eventually be overcome. Some authors argue that this stage may be only a few decades away. Yet present purposes require no assumptions about the time-scale. The simulation argument works equally well for those who think that it will take hundreds of thousands of years to reach a “posthuman” stage of civilization, where humankind has acquired most of the technological capabilities that one can currently show to be consistent with physical laws and with material and energy constraints.

    Such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers. It is currently hard to be confident in any upper bound on the computing power that may be available to posthuman civilizations. As we are still lacking a “theory of everything”, we cannot rule out the possibility that novel physical phenomena, not allowed for in current physical theories, may be utilized to transcend those constraints that in our current understanding impose theoretical limits on the information processing attainable in a given lump of matter. We can with much greater confidence establish lower bounds on posthuman computation, by assuming only mechanisms that are already understood. For example, Eric Drexler has outlined a design for a system the size of a sugar cube (excluding cooling and power supply) that would perform 10^21 instructions per second. Another author gives a rough estimate of 10^42 operations per second for a computer with a mass on order of a large planet. (If we could create quantum computers, or learn to build computers out of nuclear matter or plasma, we could push closer to the theoretical limits.

    Seth Lloyd calculates an upper bound for a 1 kg computer of 5*10^50 logical operations per second carried out on ~10^31 bits.[5] However, it suffices for our purposes to use the more conservative estimate that presupposes only currently known design-principles.)The amount of computing power needed to emulate a human mind can likewise be roughly estimated. One estimate, based on how computationally expensive it is to replicate the functionality of a piece of nervous tissue that we have already understood and whose functionality has been replicated in silico, contrast enhancement in the retina, yields a figure of ~10^14 operations per second for the entire human brain. An alternative estimate, based the number of synapses in the brain and their firing frequency, gives a figure of ~10^16-10^17 operations per second. Conceivably, even more could be required if we want to simulate in detail the internal workings of synapses and dentritic trees. However, it is likely that the human central nervous system has a high degree of redundancy on the mircoscale to compensate for the unreliability and noisiness of its neuronal components. One would therefore expect a substantial efficiency gain when using more reliable and versatile non-biological processors.

    Memory seems to be a no more stringent constraint than processing power. Moreover, since the maximum human sensory bandwidth is ~10^8 bits per second, simulating all sensory events incurs a negligible cost compared to simulating the cortical activity. We can therefore use the processing power required to simulate the central nervous system as an estimate of the total computational cost of simulating a human mind.

    If the environment is included in the simulation, this will require additional computing power — how much depends on the scope and granularity of the simulation. Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible, unless radically new physics is discovered. But in order to get a realistic simulation of human experience, much less is needed — only whatever is required to ensure that the simulated humans, interacting in normal human ways with their simulated environment, don’t notice any irregularities. The microscopic structure of the inside of the Earth can be safely omitted. Distant astronomical objects can have highly compressed representations: verisimilitude need extend to the narrow band of properties that we can observe from our planet or solar system spacecraft.

    On the surface of Earth, macroscopic objects in inhabited areas may need to be continuously simulated, but microscopic phenomena could likely be filled in ad hoc. What you see through an electron microscope needs to look unsuspicious, but you usually have no way of confirming its coherence with unobserved parts of the microscopic world. Exceptions arise when we deliberately design systems to harness unobserved microscopic phenomena that operate in accordance with known principles to get results that we are able to independently verify. The paradigmatic case of this is a computer. The simulation may therefore need to include a continuous representation of computers down to the level of individual logic elements. This presents no problem, since our current computing power is negligible by posthuman standards.

    Moreover, a posthuman simulator would have enough computing power to keep track of the detailed belief-states in all human brains at all times. Therefore, when it saw that a human was about to make an observation of the microscopic world, it could fill in sufficient detail in the simulation in the appropriate domain on an as-needed basis. Should any error occur, the director could easily edit the states of any brains that have become aware of an anomaly before it spoils the simulation. Alternatively, the director could skip back a few seconds and rerun the simulation in a way that avoids the problem.

    It thus seems plausible that the main computational cost in creating simulations that are indistinguishable from physical reality for human minds in the simulation resides in simulating organic brains down to the neuronal or sub-neuronal level. While it is not possible to get a very exact estimate of the cost of a realistic simulation of human history, we can use ~10^33 - 10^36 operations as a rough estimate. As we gain more experience with virtual reality, we will get a better grasp of the computational requirements for making such worlds appear realistic to their visitors. But in any case, even if our estimate is off by several orders of magnitude, this does not matter much for our argument.

    We noted that a rough approximation of the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 10^42 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are probably far from optimal. A single such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second. A posthuman civilization may eventually build an astronomical number of such computers. We can conclude that the computing power available to a posthuman civilization is sufficient to run a huge number of ancestor-simulations even it allocates only a minute fraction of its resources to that purpose. We can draw this conclusion even while leaving a substantial margin of error in all our estimates:

    Posthuman civilizations would have enough computing power to run hugely many ancestor-simulations even while using only a tiny fraction of their resources for that purpose.


    V. A Bland Indifference Principle

    We can take a further step and conclude that conditional on the truth of (3), one’s credence in the hypothesis that one is in a simulation should be close to unity. More generally, if we knew that a fraction x of all observers with human-type experiences live in simulations, and we don’t have any information that indicate that our own particular experiences are any more or less likely than other human-type experiences to have been implemented in vivo rather than in machina, then our credence that we are in a simulation should equal x:


    This step is sanctioned by a very weak indifference principle. Let us distinguish two cases. The first case, which is the easiest, is where all the minds in question are like your own in the sense that they are exactly qualitatively identical to yours: they have exactly the same information and the same experiences that you have. The second case is where the minds are “like” each other only in the loose sense of being the sort of minds that are typical of human creatures, but they are qualitatively distinct from one another and each has a distinct set of experiences. I maintain that even in the latter case, where the minds are qualitatively different, the simulation argument still works, provided that you have no information that bears on the question of which of the various minds are simulated and which are implemented biologically.

    A detailed defense of a stronger principle, which implies the above stance for both cases as trivial special instances, has been given in the literature. Space does not permit a recapitulation of that defense here, but we can bring out one of the underlying intuitions by bringing to our attention to an analogous situation of a more familiar kind. Suppose that x% of the population has a certain genetic sequence S within the part of their DNA commonly designated as “junk DNA”. Suppose, further, that there are no manifestations of S (short of what would turn up in a gene assay) and that there are no known correlations between having S and any observable characteristic. Then, quite clearly, unless you have had your DNA sequenced, it is rational to assign a credence of x% to the hypothesis that you have S. And this is so quite irrespective of the fact that the people who have S have qualitatively different minds and experiences from the people who don’t have S. (They are different simply because all humans have different experiences from one another, not because of any known link between S and what kind of experiences one has.)

    The same reasoning holds if S is not the property of having a certain genetic sequence but instead the property of being in a simulation, assuming only that we have no information that enables us to predict any differences between the experiences of simulated minds and those of the original biological minds.

    It should be stressed that the bland indifference principle expressed by (#) prescribes indifference only between hypotheses about which observer you are, when you have no information about which of these observers you are. It does not in general prescribe indifference between hypotheses when you lack specific information about which of the hypotheses is true. In contrast to Laplacean and other more ambitious principles of indifference, it is therefore immune to Bertrand’s paradox and similar predicaments that tend to plague indifference principles of unrestricted scope.

    Readers familiar with the Doomsday argument may worry that the bland principle of indifference invoked here is the same assumption that is responsible for getting the Doomsday argument off the ground, and that the counterintuitiveness of some of the implications of the latter incriminates or casts doubt on the validity of the former. This is not so. The Doomsday argument rests on a much stronger and more controversial premiss, namely that one should reason as if one were a random sample from the set of all people who will ever have lived (past, present, and future) even though we know that we are living in the early twenty-first century rather than at some point in the distant past or the future. The bland indifference principle, by contrast, applies only to cases where we have no information about which group of people we belong to.

    If betting odds provide some guidance to rational belief, it may also be worth to ponder that if everybody were to place a bet on whether they are in a simulation or not, then if people use the bland principle of indifference, and consequently place their money on being in a simulation if they know that that’s where almost all people are, then almost everyone will win their bets. If they bet on not being in a simulation, then almost everyone will lose. It seems better that the bland indifference principle be heeded.

    Further, one can consider a sequence of possible situations in which an increasing fraction of all people live in simulations: 98%, 99%, 99.9%, 99.9999%, and so on. As one approaches the limiting case in which everybody is in a simulation (from which one can deductively infer that one is in a simulation oneself), it is plausible to require that the credence one assigns to being in a simulation gradually approach the limiting case of complete certainty in a matching manner.

    VI. Interpretation

    The possibility represented by proposition (1) is fairly straightforward. If (1) is true, then humankind will almost certainly fail to reach a posthuman level; for virtually no species at our level of development become posthuman, and it is hard to see any justification for thinking that our own species will be especially privileged or protected from future disasters. Conditional on (1), therefore, we must give a high credence to DOOM, the hypothesis that humankind will go extinct before reaching a posthuman level:

    One can imagine hypothetical situations were we have such evidence as would trump knowledge of . For example, if we discovered that we were about to be hit by a giant meteor, this might suggest that we had been exceptionally unlucky. We could then assign a credence to DOOM larger than our expectation of the fraction of human-level civilizations that fail to reach posthumanity. In the actual case, however, we seem to lack evidence for thinking that we are special in this regard, for better or worse.

    Proposition (1) doesn’t by itself imply that we are likely to go extinct soon, only that we are unlikely to reach a posthuman stage. This possibility is compatible with us remaining at, or somewhat above, our current level of technological development for a long time before going extinct. Another way for (1) to be true is if it is likely that technological civilization will collapse. Primitive human societies might then remain on Earth indefinitely.

    There are many ways in which humanity could become extinct before reaching posthumanity. Perhaps the most natural interpretation of (1) is that we are likely to go extinct as a result of the development of some powerful but dangerous technology. One candidate is molecular nanotechnology, which in its mature stage would enable the construction of self-replicating nanobots capable of feeding on dirt and organic matter — a kind of mechanical bacteria. Such nanobots, designed for malicious ends, could cause the extinction of all life on our planet.

    The second alternative in the simulation argument’s conclusion is that the fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulation is negligibly small. In order for (2) to be true, there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations. If the number of ancestor-simulations created by the interested civilizations is extremely large, the rarity of such civilizations must be correspondingly extreme. Virtually no posthuman civilizations decide to use their resources to run large numbers of ancestor-simulations. Furthermore, virtually all posthuman civilizations lack individuals who have sufficient resources and interest to run ancestor-simulations; or else they have reliably enforced laws that prevent such individuals from acting on their desires.

    What force could bring about such convergence? One can speculate that advanced civilizations all develop along a trajectory that leads to the recognition of an ethical prohibition against running ancestor-simulations because of the suffering that is inflicted on the inhabitants of the simulation. However, from our present point of view, it is not clear that creating a human race is immoral. On the contrary, we tend to view the existence of our race as constituting a great ethical value. Moreover, convergence on an ethical view of the immorality of running ancestor-simulations is not enough: it must be combined with convergence on a civilization-wide social structure that enables activities considered immoral to be effectively banned.Another possible convergence point is that almost all individual posthumans in virtually all posthuman civilizations develop in a direction where they lose their desires to run ancestor-simulations. This would require significant changes to the motivations driving their human predecessors, for there are certainly many humans who would like to run ancestor-simulations if they could afford to do so.

    But perhaps many of our human desires will be regarded as silly by anyone who becomes a posthuman. Maybe the scientific value of ancestor-simulations to a posthuman civilization is negligible (which is not too implausible given its unfathomable intellectual superiority), and maybe posthumans regard recreational activities as merely a very inefficient way of getting pleasure — which can be obtained much more cheaply by direct stimulation of the brain’s reward centers. One conclusion that follows from (2) is that posthuman societies will be very different from human societies: they will not contain relatively wealthy independent agents who have the full gamut of human-like desires and are free to act on them.

    The possibility expressed by alternative (3) is the conceptually most intriguing one. If we are living in a simulation, then the cosmos that we are observing is just a tiny piece of the totality of physical existence. The physics in the universe where the computer is situated that is running the simulation may or may not resemble the physics of the world that we observe. While the world we see is in some sense “real”, it is not located at the fundamental level of reality.

    It may be possible for simulated civilizations to become posthuman. They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe. Such computers would be “virtual machines”, a familiar concept in computer science. (Java script web-applets, for instance, run on a virtual machine — a simulated computer — inside your desktop.) Virtual machines can be stacked: it’s possible to simulate a machine simulating another machine, and so on, in arbitrarily many steps of iteration. If we do go on to create our own ancestor-simulations, this would be strong evidence against (1) and (2), and we would therefore have to conclude that we live in a simulation. Moreover, we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.

    Reality may thus contain many levels. Even if it is necessary for the hierarchy to bottom out at some stage — the metaphysical status of this claim is somewhat obscure — there may be room for a large number of levels of reality, and the number could be increasing over time. (One consideration that counts against the multi-level hypothesis is that the computational cost for the basement-level simulators would be very great. Simulating even a single posthuman civilization might be prohibitively expensive. If so, then we should expect our simulation to be terminated when we are about to become posthuman.)

    Although all the elements of such a system can be naturalistic, even physical, it is possible to draw some loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world. In some ways, the posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens. However, all the demigods except those at the fundamental level of reality are subject to sanctions by the more powerful gods living at lower levels.

    Further rumination on these themes could climax in a naturalistic theogony that would study the structure of this hierarchy, and the constraints imposed on its inhabitants by the possibility that their actions on their own level may affect the treatment they receive from dwellers of deeper levels. For example, if nobody can be sure that they are at the basement-level, then everybody would have to consider the possibility that their actions will be rewarded or punished, based perhaps on moral criteria, by their simulators. An afterlife would be a real possibility. Because of this fundamental uncertainty, even the basement civilization may have a reason to behave ethically. The fact that it has such a reason for moral behavior would of course add to everybody else’s reason for behaving morally, and so on, in truly virtuous circle. One might get a kind of universal ethical imperative, which it would be in everybody’s self-interest to obey, as it were “from nowhere”.

    In addition to ancestor-simulations, one may also consider the possibility of more selective simulations that include only a small group of humans or a single individual. The rest of humanity would then be zombies or “shadow-people” — humans simulated only at a level sufficient for the fully simulated people not to notice anything suspicious. It is not clear how much cheaper shadow-people would be to simulate than real people. It is not even obvious that it is possible for an entity to behave indistinguishably from a real human and yet lack conscious experience.

    Even if there are such selective simulations, you should not think that you are in one of them unless you think they are much more numerous than complete simulations. There would have to be about 100 billion times as many “me-simulations” (simulations of the life of only a single mind) as there are ancestor-simulations in order for most simulated persons to be in me-simulations.

    There is also the possibility of simulators abridging certain parts of the mental lives of simulated beings and giving them false memories of the sort of experiences that they would typically have had during the omitted interval. If so, one can consider the following (farfetched) solution to the problem of evil: that there is no suffering in the world and all memories of suffering are illusions. Of course, this hypothesis can be seriously entertained only at those times when you are not currently suffering.

    Supposing we live in a simulation, what are the implications for us humans? The foregoing remarks notwithstanding, the implications are not all that radical. Our best guide to how our posthuman creators have chosen to set up our world is the standard empirical study of the universe we see. The revisions to most parts of our belief networks would be rather slight and subtle — in proportion to our lack of confidence in our ability to understand the ways of posthumans. Properly understood, therefore, the truth of (3) should have no tendency to make us “go crazy” or to prevent us from going about our business and making plans and predictions for tomorrow. The chief empirical importance of (3) at the current time seems to lie in its role in the tripartite conclusion established above. We may hope that (3) is true since that would decrease the probability of (1), although if computational constraints make it likely that simulators would terminate a simulation before it reaches a posthuman level, then out best hope would be that (2) is true.

    If we learn more about posthuman motivations and resource constraints, maybe as a result of developing towards becoming posthumans ourselves, then the hypothesis that we are simulated will come to have a much richer set of empirical implications.

    VII. Conclusion

    A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

    If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

    Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.

March 13, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why, that's rediggulo.us


Freak out.

What do you get when you combine reddit, digg and del.icio.us?


You win!

Contact me and I'll mail your prize instanter — if not sooner.

Or later.

Or real soon now.

Or never – does never work for you?

March 13, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MotoArt — How much is that radial aircraft engine coffee table in the window?


Donovan Fell and Dave Hall co-own MotoArt, which turns old airplane parts into fashionable furniture.

Long story short: Last year the company sold $1.5 million worth and business is soaring.

Here's David Colker's February 28, 2007 Los Angeles Times story about the entrepreneurs and their company.

    A New Flight Plan For Success

    Ever since MotoArt began five years ago, sales have soared — propelling its owners to expand the furniture business overseas.

    Donovan Fell makes coffee tables out of jet engines, conference tables from airplane wings and desk chairs out of pilot ejection seats.

    And last year, his furniture brought in $1.5 million.

    Fell is co-owner of MotoArt, a Torrance-based company that turns vintage aviation parts into fixtures for the home and office, if the buyer has an aviation fixation. Or just wants something unique.

    None of it comes cheap. It's hard to find anything in MotoArt's spacious shop for less than $1,000, and a conference table can be as much as $35,000.

    This is recycling for the wealthy.

    "Rich guys come down here and their eyes light up," said co-owner Dave Hall, 39. "We envy them and they envy us."

    "Then we make a little trade," said Fell, 57.

    Although the business took off faster than either salesman Hall and designer Fell imagined when they started it as a sideline in a garage five years ago, it's their next flight plan that could be the most daunting.

    They want to take MotoArt, an artisan business with 13 employees, and turn it into a mass marketer with factories and showrooms around the world.

    "We make everything here, right now," said Fell, standing in their 12,000-square-foot workshop next to Torrance Municipal Airport. "What we need to do is knock ourselves off."

    The showroom area, upstairs from the shop, has been outfitted in aviation-fantasy, bachelor-pad decor.

    There are rolling bars that were food carts once pushed by flight attendants. Cleaned up and plated with aluminum for an industrial-chic look, they go for $1,500 each.

    In a corner is the DC-3 Martini Table ($7,900) with a nearly 5-foot-tall propeller mounted on top. Nearby is the Get Bombed Table ($5,400), which incorporates a World War II practice bomb with a hinged nose so that it can be used as an ice bucket.

    Hall estimated that 80% of MotoArt's customer base is male.

    "Some of them fly into the airport to see us," he said. "This is like a clubhouse for them."

    Dom Cecere, chief financial officer of Westwood-based builder KB Home, saw a picture in a magazine of a MotoArt table, with a 1930s airplane engine for a base.

    "I fell in love with it, bought it and before I knew it, I was buying more," Cecere said. He outfitted his home office with the table (about $10,000, at current prices), a custom-designed B-25 wing desk ($10,000) and a B-52 crew ejection seat ($4,900).

    "No one walks into the house and says, 'I've seen that before,' " Cecere said.

    Fell and Hall met in 2000 at a company that designed signs for Dodger Stadium, Union Station and Disneyland. As a sideline, Fell liked to buy and restore beat-up airplane propellers that once powered prominent military and commercial airplanes. Mounted on bases, they would go for $700 and up at flea markets.

    The men struck out on their own as partners in a sign business in 2002, and Fell kept at his propellers. Hall tagged along when Fell took several to sell at a classic auto auction.

    "Dave is a brilliant salesman," Fell said, "and when he saw the reaction people were having to them, he saw the real dollar value."

    Fell revved up the propeller renovations, working out of Hall's garage in Palos Verdes. Within six months they had enough business to start phasing out the signs and move the renovation operation to a 900-square-foot building. There, Fell added the martini table and other pieces of furniture, which they sold at air shows and other events.

    To help meet expenses, they sometimes bartered for services.

    "We had our attorney for four years without paying him a penny," Fell said, "but he got a lot of our pieces."

    They traveled to airplane scrap yards to find parts. A breakthrough came when Fell insisted, over Hall's objections, on buying a stack of paratrooper exit doors that had been on military C-119s.

    Fell made 20 tables of the doors bought for $100 apiece. The first one they sold went for $4,000 and they continually raised the price to see what the market would bear. The last 10 sold for $10,000 each.

    Buoyed by word of mouth and articles in upscale magazines, the enterprise grew. Fell and Hall's business struggles were even detailed in an eight-episode reality series, "Wing Nuts," which first aired in 2004 on the Discovery Channel.

    That same year, MotoArt moved into its current building. Several large jobs came its way, including outfitting a reception area and conference room at 19 Entertainment, the London-based company that produces "American Idol." It also sold pieces to Boeing Co. for offices in Seal Beach. "They were buying furniture from us made of parts they originally manufactured," Hall said.

    On a recent day, MotoArt employees buzzed around the shop floor and outside work spaces sanding and polishing aluminum surfaces, a process that can take as long as two weeks on a large part.

    Raw parts were everywhere — propellers lined up against walls, jet spinners hung from the ceiling, beat-up rolling carts tucked away in a shed.

    Fell rummaged through the stockpiles, describing ideas for imagined creations. When he got to a spiral staircase, which once led to the upper cabin of a Boeing 747, he waxed excitedly about incorporating it into a deck and hot tub.

    "He's been talking about that for a couple years," Hall said, rolling his eyes.

    MotoArt's new direction calls for Fell to ease off from tinkering with vintage parts as the company makes the hoped-for transition into large-scale production. The company is looking to raise $5 million for the expansion, Hall said. Later this week, the two will fly to Indonesia, courtesy of a potential investor in that country, to discuss establishing an Asian outpost for the business.

    "The idea is to make designs," Fell said, "and have them built overseas."

    The new products would contain, in most cases, no vintage parts.

    As an example, Fell cited a $35,000 conference table he made from a 1920s biplane wing for a mortgage company. Others took notice. "I got a call from a hotel that wanted 300 biplane-wing coffee tables," Fell said. "I couldn't find enough wings for that if I lived to be 1,000."

    He said they could produce the tables, however, out of modern materials made to appear vintage.

    "They would be very reasonable facsimiles," he said.

    Fell said he had 10 product lines, based on MotoArt pieces, in the planning stages, waiting for the investment needed to get them into production. They would still make some pieces out of vintage parts not only here but also perhaps in Eastern Europe. "They have a lot of MiG parts over there," Fell said.

    Fell is eager to move into what he hopes will be mass marketing. He can envision a future in which he is the rich guy. But he doesn't want to give up on the impetus for the current business.

    "I'll never stop with the vintage parts," he said. "I get no thrill from mass marketing."


Can they build one for you?

March 13, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack



All this [search] science, I don't understand
It's just my job seven days a week

Hey, they're playing my song!

urlfan.com says bookofjoe "ranks 4,035 out of 1,844,043 sites."

Is that good or bad?

Should I be pleased or dismayed?

I'm neither, simply confused.

What's new?

March 13, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Bizarro World 'My Dinner With Andre'


Headlined "My Lunch With 2 Fraudsters," it's a fascinating account by Herb Greenberg of his breaking bread with convicted felons Barry Minkow (ZZZZ Best) and Sam E. Antar (Crazy Eddie).

Read it and take away the advice of these world-class fraudsters: "Do not trust — verify everything."

The piece, which appeared in the March 3, 2007 Wall Street Journal, follows.

    My Lunch With 2 Fraudsters: Food for Thought for Investors

    My lunch with two crooks: "Hi Sammy, it's great to see you." Barry Minkow gave Sam E. Antar a hug as we walked to our table at a fish restaurant overlooking the San Diego Bay. It was a Friday, and Mr. Antar made the trek to San Diego from Los Angeles, where he was visiting his son; a few days earlier, this convicted felon had lectured students and faculty at the Stanford Law School on how not to get taken by a crook like him.

    Mr. Antar was chief financial officer of Crazy Eddie, A New York electronics retailer that in the 1970s and 1980s claimed "our prices are inSANE" as it bilked investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. He stayed out of jail by turning on several others, including his cousin, Eddie Antar, who was Crazy Eddie's co-founder. Mr. Minkow, on the other hand, spent seven years behind bars after stealing more than $20 million from investors in the 1980s as founder and chief executive of ZZZZ Best, a once-hot rug-cleaning company whose books could've used a good scrubbing.

    "He's an orthodox Jew and I'm a Jew who is a pastor," cracks Mr. Minkow, who like Mr. Antar now spends time lecturing and working with cops to bust white-collar financial frauds. Mr. Minkow has reverence for Mr. Antar, who looks like Carla's husband from the sitcom "Cheers" — and who claims to suffer from a bipolar disorder and serious insomnia. (I can vouch for the latter because his emails and postings on various blogs come at all hours, mostly in the middle of the night.) "Criminals don't sleep," he explains.

    A former CPA, Mr. Antar makes no excuses for his criminal past, referring to himself in emails, casual discussion and his Web site — whitecollarfraud.com — as a "low life" and "convicted felon." Even the normally loquacious Mr. Minkow appears to enjoy leaving the talking to Mr. Antar, who takes no money for his speeches. "I don't want to be held up on the pedestal of redemption," he says. "I would rather people learn from my vile, ugly and vicious crimes. It is most important that they understand the ugly nature of criminality. My life is a mistake of history."

    A mistake, maybe, but one other people can learn from. "Do not trust — verify," was his mantra as the meal began.

    Verify what? "Everything."

    Even whether Mr. Antar and Mr. Minkow aren't still scamming?


    And so it went, with Mr. Antar continuing with emails over several weeks.

    "Watch how management handles bad quarters, earnings disappointments, criticism, skepticism and cynicism," he says. "Do they start by saying, 'We take full responsibility and make no excuses' — only to follow by carefully worded innuendos, excuses and deflection? Do they question the integrity of those who ask questions?"

    He continues: "Just because a CEO takes a $1 salary doesn't make that person immune to criminality. Just because I travel the country and teach the government, colleges and universities, and professional groups about white-collar crime and never collect a fee and pay out of my own pocket all travel costs, doesn't mean I am not a criminal today. Remember that many crimes are committed without economic gain for reasons of ego, status and sheer arrogance."

    Mr. Antar says investors should do a better job "studying" financial reports, especially the footnotes and "risk factor" sections. "Notice that I used the word 'study' and not 'read' since all information is not meant to be read like a novel, but meant to be analyzed like a project."

    He adds: "Criminals are scared of skeptics and cynics," he says. "We are petrified when you verify our representations."

    Did he ever have remorse? "Never... We simply did not care about any one of our victims. We simply committed crime because we could.

    "As criminals we built false walls of integrity around us," he adds. "We walked old ladies across the street. We built wings to hospitals. We gave huge amounts of money to charity. We wanted you to trust us.

    "Simply said... if you want to be an investor, you cannot accept information at face value. 'Unexamined acceptance' is the greatest cause of investor losses."

    As for Mr. Minkow? He defers to Mr. Antar. "He's the best," he says. Lunch wasn't bad, either.

March 13, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack



Oooh — a name to conjure with.

Tell us more.

From the website:


    Just hang this "wasp nest impersonator" in your yard or attic to keep wasps away... naturally.

    Because Waspinator looks like an enemy nest, territorial wasps will avoid it, completely leaving the scene!

    No chemical sprays or sticky bait involved; just hang by its loop, indoors or out.

    11-1/2"H x 10" dia.



March 13, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Hamlet on Trial — Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Presiding


"The Trial of Hamlet" is to be heard in Washington, D.C. this coming Thursday, March 15, 2007, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

"Justice Kennedy [below] first created "The Trial of Hamlet" in 1994 as an event for fellow Shakespeare lovers," wrote Lynette Clemetson in a March 10, 2007 New York Times article about the event.

It was originally scheduled to be presented in the 550-seat Terrace Theater but soon sold out, so it was moved to the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater, where it again quickly sold out.

The attorneys on both sides are among the very finest in the country, and they're putting in major hours (non-billable at their usual $700-$1,000/hour rate) to prepare their cases.

Here's the Times story.

    Was Dane’s Madness Just Method? Jury to Decide

    With just days to go before the trial, the opposing counsels were already squaring off.

    “We have an incredibly strong case,” said Miles Ehrlich, the prosecutor. “It is hard to find anyone in history who had a better proven appreciation for the nature of his actions.”

    The defense lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, was equally confident. “The cry for justice, as sincere as it is, should not have us try those with mental illness as serious criminals,” he said. “There are an abundance of demonstrations of the actuality and sincerity of my client’s mental disorder.”

    The defendant, who has — for centuries — declined to comment, is none other than Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, possessed avenger of his father’s death, murderer of Polonius.

    The prince’s criminal responsibility — whether he was sane at the time of that killing — is the central question of “The Trial of Hamlet,” to be heard here on Thursday at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The mock trial is a Washington wonk’s dream, stacked with Shakespeare-loving luminaries. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court, an enthusiastic Shakespeare aficionado who conceived of the idea, will preside over the trial.

    “What you realize is that you know Hamlet better than you know some real people, because he tells you exactly what he is thinking,” said Justice Kennedy in a telephone interview. “The trial provides a fascinating, oblique way in which to examine Hamlet, the legal process and the intellect of Shakespeare, who continues to speak to us in our own time.”

    The trial is part of “Shakespeare in Washington,” a six-month festival organized by the Kennedy Center with more than 500 performances and events produced by 70 institutions. With attractions traditional, whimsical, inventive and offbeat, the festival, which began in January and runs through June, encompasses a broad sweep of the Washington area’s cultural offerings.

    The Shakespeare Theater Company is staging several plays, including “Richard III” and “Hamlet.” The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is performing “Romeo and Juliet.” There are musical events by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, film retrospectives at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater, university lectures and numerous productions at an array of theaters, libraries and museums.

    “It’s been a whopping success,” said Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company and curator of the festival. “It has gotten theater lovers to go to the ballet, ballet lovers to walk into museums they never knew existed.”

    “The Trial of Hamlet” was originally to be presented in the Kennedy Center’s 550-seat Terrace Theater, but tickets sold so quickly that it was moved to the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater; it again quickly sold out.

    Justice Kennedy solicited Mr. Lowell and Mr. Ehrlich to try the case, along with a top-tier supporting cast.

    Mr. Lowell’s list of real-life clients includes the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. His Hamlet co-counsel is Catherine Crier, a Court TV host and former Texas state judge. Of Hamlet, Mr. Lowell said: “He is one of the easiest clients I have dealt with. He refrains from making unauthorized statements to the press.”

    Mr. Ehrlich, who once clerked for Justice Kennedy, is a federal prosecutor turned defense lawyer. To prosecute Hamlet, he is teaming with Cristina C. Arguedas, a criminal defense lawyer based, as he is, in Berkeley, Calif. When they’re not holding Hamlet accountable, the two are representing Hewlett-Packard Company officials in the high-profile case surrounding the company’s efforts to spy on its board members.

    Each side has one expert witness. The defense will call on Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute; the prosecution will counter with Dr. Alan A. Stone, a professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard.

    The jury is made up of three high school students, three college students and a collection of local arts patrons. Hamlet, played by Joshua Drew, a local actor, will not testify and is expected to sit silently throughout the proceedings.

    Justice Kennedy first created “The Trial of Hamlet” in 1994 as an event for fellow Shakespeare lovers; it was held in a conference room at the Supreme Court, and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg served as a juror. He has since taken the trial to groups in Boston and Chicago. Mr. Ehrlich, who was a clerk for Justice Kennedy in 1994, acted as bailiff in the first trial. Mr. Lowell defended Hamlet. And lost.

    “When he asked me to try it again, given my previous incompetence, I felt compelled to accept,” Mr. Lowell said. “This time I have spent hours and hours on the text and the case, at least 20 hours so far. I will take what I know the prosecutors view as their strength and show it for weakness.”

    From his office in Berkeley, Mr. Ehrlich (who said he had spent roughly 50 hours preparing his case) scoffed at Mr. Lowell’s pronouncements.

    “I hear Lowell is trash-talking already,” he said. “My advice to him is read the play again. Hamlet had a habit of talking to himself. It is almost an insult to suggest that someone of his insight was so impaired by mental disease that he could not comprehend or control his actions.”

    The play, of course, presents a major hurdle to the trial’s credibility. Hamlet, after all, dies — along with nearly every other major character, except for Horatio. Justice Kennedy found a way around that little glitch. The program for the evening opens with a newspaper clipping from the fictitious Elsinore Times.

    The article, written by the justice, explains that the citizens of Denmark are still reeling from the deaths of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude and Laertes, who were all stabbed or poisoned during a fencing contest. In a shocking development, it continues, “Prince Hamlet, who himself had appeared to succumb to some lethal dose, recovered consciousness,” allowing him to be charged in the earlier death of Polonius, counselor to King Claudius and father to Laertes and Ophelia.

    There is no rehearsal for the trial, and no hint to what the jury may decide. That is what keeps it interesting, those involved said.

    “It is clear to me that Shakespeare meant for this to be a puzzle,” Justice Kennedy said. “Each time I hear this trial, I see something new in the play and gain new insight into the way the law of criminal responsibility works.”



I'm sure you could get a ticket if you showed up and asked around.

The curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m.; 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600; details here.

March 13, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

No-Stain Microwave Pot


I'll believe this when I see it.

I can't speak for you but me, every single one of my [once] clear Rubbermaid plastic bowls and containers has a faint orange tint, the result of many happy nukings of tomato-containing soups, sauces and their ilk in my microwave.

From the website:

    Microwave Pot — Won't Stain!

    Just imagine, you can cook tomato-based sauces or soups, chili, baked beans and other foods without permanently staining this clear plastic saucepan.

    Ends orange-tinted microwave dishes, scrubbing or bleaching!

    Dishwasher-safe pot has a 3" handle and two pouring spouts.

    6-1/2" diameter x 3-1/4" H.

    Holds approx. 20 oz.


March 13, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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