Oct 222014

berlin-wall-flagMy parents escaped from communist Poland when I was a wee baby. And there was a level of actual “escaping” involved, the country was trying to prevent their leaving. Preventing one’s citizens from leaving a country, despite their wishes, is a pretty infamous characteristic of totalitarian regimes, especially communist ones. Our media still criticizes North Korea for it.

How are the Western countries trying to stop people from leaving their state any different?

For that matter, can anyone figure out why the UK (and other countries) are trying to prevent their citizens from running off to the middle east to join IS? Shouldn’t that be encouraged? It’s gets dangerous radicals out of your country, and it makes them happier. AND it makes all their former neighbors safer and happier as well. What is the downside? Everyone wins. And you aren’t faced with the bad publicity of attacking your own citizens within your own borders, which has always been a red flag of totalitarianism. Do we really want to become more like the very societies we’ve been taught are evil for so long?

What am I missing here?

Oct 212014

warhammer-40000--art---858846I. PvE vs PvP

Ever since it’s advent in Doom, PvP (Player vs Player) has been an integral part of almost every major video game. This is annoying to PvE (Player vs Environment) fans like myself, especially when PvE mechanics are altered (read: simplified and degraded) for the purpose of accommodating the PvP game play. Even in games which are ostensibly about the story & world, rather than direct player-on-player competition.

The reason for this comes down to simple math. PvE content is expensive to make. An hour of game play can take many dozens, or nowadays even hundreds, of man-hours of labor to produce. And once you’ve completed a PvE game, you’re done with it. There’s nothing else, you’ve reached “The End”, congrats. You can replay it a few times if you really loved it, like re-reading a book, but the content is the same. MMORGs recycle content by forcing you to grind bosses many times before you can move on to the next one, but that’s as fun as the word “grind” makes it sound. At that point people are there more for the social aspect and the occasional high than the core gameplay itself.

PvP “content”, OTOH, generates itself. Other humans keep learning and getting better and improvising new tactics. Every encounter has the potential to be new and exciting, and they always come with the rush of triumphing over another person (or the crush of losing to the same).

But much more to the point – In PvE potentially everyone can make it into the halls of “Finished The Game;” and if everyone is special, no one is. PvP has a very small elite – there can only be one #1 player, and people are always scrabbling for that position, or defending it. PvP harnesses our status-seeking instinct to get us to provide challenges for each other rather than forcing the game developers to develop new challenges for us. It’s far more cost effective, and a single man-hour of labor can produce hundreds or thousands of hours of game play. StarCraft  continued to be played at a massive level for 12 years after its release, until it was replaced with StarCraft II.

So if you want to keep people occupied for a looooong time without running out of game-world, focus on PvP

II. Science as PvE

In the distant past (in internet time) I commented at LessWrong that discovering new aspects of reality was exciting and filled me with awe and wonder and the normal “Science is Awesome” applause lights (and yes, I still feel that way). And I sneered at the status-grubbing of politicians and administrators and basically everyone that we in nerd culture disliked in high school. How temporary and near-sighted! How zero-sum (and often negative-sum!), draining resources we could use for actual positive-sum efforts like exploration and research! A pox on their houses!

Someone replied, asking why anyone should care about the minutia of lifeless, non-agenty forces? How could anyone expend so much of their mental efforts on such trivia when there are these complex, elaborate status games one can play instead? Feints and countermoves and gambits and evasions, with hidden score-keeping and persistent reputation effects… and that’s just the first layer! The subtle ballet of interaction is difficult even to watch, and when you get billions of dancers interacting it can be the most exhilarating experience of all.

This was the first time I’d ever been confronted with status-behavior as anything other than wasteful. Of course I rejected it at first, because no one is allowed to win arguments in real time. But it stuck with me. I now see the game play, and it is intricate. It puts Playing At The Next Level in a whole new perspective. It is the constant refinement and challenge and lack of a final completion-condition that is the heart of PvP. Human status games are the PvP of real life.

Which, by extension of the metaphor, makes Scientific Progress the PvE of real life. Which makes sense. It is us versus the environment in the most literal sense. It is content that was provided to us, rather than what we make ourselves. And it is limited – in theory we could some day learn everything that there is to learn.

III. The Best of All Possible Worlds

I’ve mentioned a few times I have difficulty accepting reality as real. Say you were trying to keep a limitless number of humans happy and occupied for an unbounded amount of time. You provide them PvE content to get them started. But you don’t want the PvE content to be their primary focus, both because they’ll eventually run out of it, and also because once they’ve completely cracked it there’s a good chance they’ll realize they’re in a simulation. You know that PvP is a good substitute for PvE for most people, often a superior one, and that PvP can get recursively more complex and intricate without limit and keep the humans endlessly occupied and happy, as long as their neuro-architecture is right. It’d be really great if they happened to evolve in a way that made status-seeking extremely pleasurable for the majority of the species, even if that did mean that the ones losing badly were constantly miserable regardless of their objective well-being. This would mean far, far more lives could be lived and enjoyed without running out of content than would otherwise be possible.

IV. Implications for CEV

It’s said that the Coherent Extrapolated Volition is “our wish if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished to be, hard grown up farther together.” This implies a resolution to many conflicts. No more endless bickering about whether the Red Tribe is racist or the Blue Tribe is arrogant pricks. A more unified way of looking at the world that breaks down those conceptual conflicts. But if PvP play really is an integral part of the human experience, a true CEV would notice that, and would preserve these differences instead. To ensure that we always had rival factions sniping at each other over irreconcilable, fundamental disagreements in how reality should be approached and how problems should be solved. To forever keep partisan politics as part of the human condition, so we have this dance to enjoy. Stripping it out would be akin to removing humanity’s love of music, because dancing inefficiently consumes great amounts of energy just so we can end up where we started.

Carl von Clausewitz famously said “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  The correlate of “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” has already been proposed. It is not unreasonable to speculate that in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war continued by other means. Which, all things considered, is greatly preferable to actual war. As long as people like Scott are around to try to keep things somewhat civil and preventing an escalation into violence, this may not be terrible.

Oct 152014

open-doorContinuing from yesterday, there is nonetheless a bit of fear when one first opens up a relationship. Intellectually you know it’s silly, but on an emotional level there’s still that hesitation, that worry that you’ll lose the one you love. It’s a lot like the first time you’re going to jump off the high diving board into a pool. At some point you just gotta trust your reasoning and jump.

One of the biggest steps forward in my current relationship was when I wasn’t scared of losing my SO anymore. Like, she can go and have fun, and I know she loves me, and I don’t worry about losing her to anyone else. They might be a fun lay, but they aren’t me. I’m not worried she’ll leave me for people she enjoys shopping with, or gardening with, or whatever. This is just another activity, and I’m not gonna lose her to someone else she does it with from time to time either. Having that trust is really what makes it easy.

The thing is, the openness is what builds that trust. The first time you don’t really know, right? You have faith, because you love the person and you think they love you back. But it’s just faith, it isn’t knowledge. And then once it happens a few times and you still love each other and the world didn’t end, that’s when it really sinks in. “Oh, yeah. This is real. I can totally trust her, and she’ll stay with me anyway” It’s kinda cool.

The level of comfort that sort of trust brings is awesome, and it makes the relationship better in every other aspect. The guarding, drama, and fear/uncertainty of monogamous relationships? Ugh – no. Would not buy again.

Oct 142014

Emperor's New ClothesI was just talking with someone interested in monogamish relationships and the looming specter of Jealousy (insert ghostly “oooOOOOoooOOooo” sound). As far as I can tell, jealousy is an entirely invented social construct. It’s like God, in that we all have to pretend to believe in it, and act like we believe in it, when we don’t really feel it at all. But we see everyone else acting as if it exists, which convinces us that it is real, and so we have to play along as well or risk being the one weirdo freak. And no one realizes that everyone is faking it.

When I let it go I found that it was complete BS. Maybe it really does exist for some guys? But I think more than anything it’s just that we’re told over and over “You have to be jealous and beat up anyone who looks at your girl, or you aren’t a real man!!” And losing your man cred in this society is fucking TERRIFYING.

I think that’s what the real motivator is. Everyone knows the patriarchy is shitty for men as well as women, but they don’t mention it too much because it’s a lot shittier for women. Well, here’s one way it’s shitty for men. You have to pretend to be jealous, and bluster about and say you’ll attack anyone who touches your mate, because if anyone sees someone other than yourself engaged in sex play with your mate you are automatically less of a man. You lose status, you can’t be taken seriously, you are something to be pitied.

Fuck that. I’ve powered through status-shaming several times already in my life, and every time I’ve been better, freer, and happier for it. Now I respect people who are in open relationships far more than those still stuck in the social straight-jacket of enforced monogamy. With the limited number of years we have here, why would you do that to your life? It’s kinda sad.

And once I let that go, and said “Fuck society, this is bullshit” I actually found that the opposite of jealousy happens. I was happy to see my girl getting that sort of pleasure. Why wouldn’t you want to see the person you love happy? And more than that… it was a complete turn on. It’s really fucking hot. At least, that’s been my experience.

Oct 102014

Golem and JinniBy Helene Wecker

Synopsis: An unlikely love story in turn-of-the-century New York.

Book Review: This is a solid story about two fish-out-water characters who come to rely on each other in a strange world. It hooks you early with a fairy-tale style, then builds slowly, establishing all the major characters firmly before it brings them together. The more you read this book the more you want to keep reading it, but it never feels unbearably urgent. It is an altogether pleasant read, it wraps up everything well, and it features strong characterization and an interesting plot. While all this is good, it’s not entirely enthralling either. If this was all there was to the book I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I don’t have a ton of free reading time, and simply being good isn’t quite enough IMHO.

Fortunately, there is more. The Jinni is a fire elemental, with exactly the personality to match (passionate, flighty, irresponsible); whereas the Golem is an earth elemental with the matching characteristics as well (solid, dependable, conservative). At first one thinks this is simply good writing, but the more I read the more I became convinced that these two characters represent the male and female genders and the book is about gender relations and the chains of biology in a pre-reproductive-control society. The men can be reckless, they do not have to suffer the consequences of their actions. This allows them freedom to pursue their whims and passions. The Jinni does what he wishes, often carelessly destroying lives without knowing he’s doing it, without a care in the world. He is unconcerned with the trouble he could bring to his immigrant community, he doesn’t understand concepts like limiting yourself out of concern for the unfair ways the world may punish others. He behaves as if the world is fair, because he’s never the brunt of any injustice. The women, OTOH, must bear the fallout of men’s bad choices. They are expected to be always restraining the men, and always policing their own actions, because it’s their lives that are ruined by a mutual decision. And society reinforces this, doubling down on the pressure put on women and freeing the men, in a sick game of piling-on.

It’s a very effective metaphor in multiple ways. The Golem starts out the property of a man. Her father-figure tries to find a kind, new master for her when the first man dies. Her destiny is always to be bound to a man. Interestingly, she even desires this – when she’s free she’s uncomfortable. And even while she’s free she’s always serving others, and always tailoring her actions to comfort and appease those around her. Both out of desire and out of fear. The claustrophobic feeling of being a woman in an institutionally sexist society is palpable.

It isn’t all roses for the Jinni either. When he’s wounded and his fellow Jinni arrive he’s very concerned about hiding his weakness, which is an aspect of male culture you don’t see engaged very often – the constant fear of showing any weakness and always having to project a strong front can be very isolating. Particularly when you actually need help.

This aspect of the book increases my enjoyment of it a good deal, so yes, Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not surprisingly, this book makes for some fairly good talking. In addition to the gender themes there is some commentary on both religion and free-will/determinism which allows for further discussion. Plus portrayal of immigrant culture and ghettos in the early 1900s. Combined with the book’s natural charms and a very comfortable length, it is likely this will get a good percentage read-completion and involvement from everyone attending. Again, Recommended.

Oct 082014

snob1Up until yesterday I completely agreed with Bad Horse’s assertion that art has been caught in a spiral of self-isolation.

>The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works

The song linked at the top of his post sounds to me like cats walking across untuned fiddles, rather than a masterpiece of “the greatest living composer”.

Then yesterday I was introduced to Mike Oldfield (thanks to Floornight). And while this isn’t something I would play at a party or recommend to most people, I enjoy large parts of it and find them quite musical. Which seems to me like I’m not applying consistent standards across Oldfield and Ferneyhough.

I’m reminded of the RadioLab episode that informed me of the riot following the 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s a good story, but to sum up – it appears people most enjoy music that is similar to what they know, but different enough to challenge them a bit. The brain naturally predicts what is coming next in a song based on melody, beat, experience, etc. And when that prediction is wrong in a way that is surprising but still seems “fair”, the brain is delighted. Rite of Spring was slightly too different for its time, thus causing the pain/hate.

This explains why as I’m getting older, less and less new music appeals to me. I’ve heard much of it before. Humanity has been rewriting the same basic songs for generations. Which is OK, the young kids coming up need their own version of Madonna or whoever. Everyone needs that foundation to build on, there’s only so many variations on those basic building blocks of music, and using your parents songs about Vietnam certainly isn’t gonna cut it. (Seriously, watch the Pachelbel Rant video, it’s great and makes this point better than words can)

We get bored as we become familiar with the basics. This is the instinct that makes people say things like “The best music/video games/whatever came out when I was a teen.” They still had new and interesting things to discover and be delighted with then, before they’d become familiar with what was widely available. I remember when the new X-Com: Enemy Unknown came out, and all I could think was “I liked this a lot better back when it was called Shadow Watch” But no one else had played Shadow Watch, so everyone else loved it. /shrug

Which brings me back to Oldfield. I suspect that if I hadn’t listened to a lot of modern music, I would consider it noise. But as it is, I’ve been swimming in rock/alt music for 30 years, and so I recognize a lot of musical tropes and habits in Amarok that draw me in and have me guessing about what’s happening, before screwing with me a bit. And it’s kinda fun. Either I haven’t listened to enough rock, or else the song is still partly crap, because some parts of it just sound jangly and awful to me. But I’m starting to see how with another decade of being submersed in rock music even those bits might begin to take hold.

I never listened to much classic. I can identify maybe a half-dozen orchestral songs (Beethoven’s 5th, Flight of the Valkyries, Oh Fortuna, Canon in D, the William Tell Overture, Fur Elise… what else? Not much.) So I don’t have any of the foundation needed to appreciate Ferneyhough – assuming that there’s anything there to appreciate. Point is, I wouldn’t know either way.

In a way, I’m sad for humanity. We are stuck on the entry-level of music appreciation, as we keep dying every few decades and the new generation has to start from scratch. But it gives me hope for the future. Various people have said they can’t imagine living for eons, that they’d get bored of everything. These people probably are stuck listening to what is being played on the radio, or re-listening to their formative albums. There ARE people digging deeper into the minutia of music, creating things that sound bad to new listeners, but which appeal to the hardened genre-savvy antediluvians. The more esoteric it gets the smaller the listenership, so it doesn’t seem like something that could support many people. But fortunately, art isn’t always driven by monetary concerns.

Oct 032014

real magicWhen younger I often longed for the ability to use The Force (ala Star Wars). If only I could flick that light-switch from a distance! With time I realized I could, at a distance of ~2.5 feet (the length of my arm). All I had to do was think about it, and expend a tiny bit of energy. From what I saw of Star Wars, it took me far less energy to do it this way than it would have taken by concentrating and using The Force. It didn’t look as cool, since anyone could do it, but it kinda was a form of magic.

This led to my observation that Industry is much like powerful Ritual Magic.

Lately I’ve been renovating an old, trashed house. At times this can get very tedious. But thinking of myself as a wizard really helps the process along. And I don’t mean one of these new-fangled wizards, that just waves a wand around and says a few words and gets exactly what he wants. Kids these days are lazy and spoiled! Back in my day (of AD&D 2nd Ed) you had to do some work to get your magic! You had material components to carry around, which were consumed upon casting, and physical actions that had to be correctly performed, some of which got rather complex. Plus we walked to and from school, through six feet of snow, uphill both ways.

But doing anything that manipulates the physical world isn’t that different. To paint these kitchen cabinets I gathered my material components (gallons of paint of the desired color), my wand-substitutes (paintbrush and roller), and repeated the somatic components (hand moving back and forth inches from the surface to be altered, occasionally returning to the paint container) for a long period of time. This particular spell didn’t have any verbal components. Eventually the Change Color of Surface spell was completed, and now the kitchen looks quite a bit different. I have the power!

The downside of this particular spell is that it’s slow, and can take hours to cast on large areas. On the plus side – it works. It’s hard to overstate how useful that is.

Oct 012014

640This post is just me being intensely annoyed with “my tribe.”

For those unfamiliar with the injunction against feigning surprise, the origin (AFAIK) is from Hacker School’s first social rule:

No feigning surprise. The first rule means you shouldn’t act surprised when people say they don’t know something. This applies to both technical things (“What?! I can’t believe you don’t know what the stack is!”) and non-technical things (“You don’t know who RMS is?!”). Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it’s usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that’s not the intention, it’s almost always the effect.

And I think we can all agree it is bad form to create a caricature of an opposing position and then try to spread the belief that the caricature is an accurate portrayal of your opponent. I am sorely tempted to call this an Eggers-Man strategy, but that might be construed as Eggers-Manning Dave Eggers.

But what’s really irritating is seeing a satire being shared half a dozen times with OMG! feigned! disbelief! that anyone could do something so ridiculous!

Yeah, I’m talking about the “Fundamentalist Christian Rewrite” of Harry Potter.

Yes, I know about Poe’s Law. And I’ve read plenty of Chick Tracts. But claiming to not know this is a satire (or an extreme outlier) and that you could confuse it for normal christianity is to say you’ve never in your life met a Christian, and you suspect they have horns and can be warded off with garlic. People are simply pretending to not know this is satire so they can publically demonstrate just how stupid they think Christians are. It’s a game of “I think Christians are even stupider than you think they are! I am honestly befuddled by this satire, it is indistinguishable from how stupid all believers must really be!”

Remember how confounded you were when all those Red Tribe people started sharing that Onion article about Planned Parenthood opening an $8B AbortionPlex? And how you thought “There is absolutely no way anyone thought this was real. Anyone who mistook this for real must live in a completely insulated reality where liberals are the Dark Ages equivalent of baby-murdering Jews, and must also be completely and utterly retarded.” If you shared one of the “ZOMG Look At What These Christians Are Doing LOL” articles going around, congratulations. There is no functional difference between you and the AbortionPlex sharer.

The thing is, there’s plenty of real stupidity in christian belief. We don’t need to go making things up. And the complete lack of reading comprehension just makes me want to claw my eyes out. Is our side really that unable to read things? Then how the heck can they claim to be the smarter side? Or are they just that willing to misrepresent and mock the other side? Then how can they claim to be the less evil side? Is this what we want our social discourse to be? People sharing parodies of the other side and pretending they’re real? Do we see this going anyplace good?

If not, cut that shit out. And maybe comment on your friend’s relink with “Don’t be dumb, it’s a satire. We’re better than this.”

Sep 302014

The_Doors_of_Perception_by_cheapexposureI read an article on the internet, as I am wont to do. This one was about how modern games are lacking a certain innovation that was around in the classic era of gaming, and speculates it may be that older hardware restricted older games to have to focus tightly just on the really good stuff, whereas modern games can sprawl and waste resources and lose focus. Maybe that’s the case, I dunno. But I suspect something else is at work here.

I lean heavily toward bio-determinism. I suspect that older people are more cautious and younger people are more headstrong and reckless not because of differences in life experience, but overwhelmingly due to hormones and biochemistry. If you were to somehow magically stick a 60-year-old man into the body he had at 18, he’d start acting much more like a reckless teenager rather than a wise patriarch, life experience be damned. Stick a teenager in a 60-year-old body and he’d slow down right quick and see the wisdom of contemplating his actions a bit. (Tangentially, I suspect the trend of the constantly-raising-average-age of the population over the last century is at least partially responsible for the lower rates of open warfare in industrialized countries. Wars are at least partly hormonal. I think one of the reasons we jumped so quickly into Iraq after 9/11/01 was because the Taliban fell too quickly and our society had not yet collectively burned through the desire to hurt Arabs in revenge, so we went looking for another target to vent on. Maybe a good leader could have redirected that energy rather than encouraged it. But I’m getting off track.)

It’s been noted quite a bit in the past decade(s) that play is the natural way humans learn. In many cases, simply encouraging play is about as effective as forcing kids to go to school. Game designers already know this, a large aspect of game design nowadays is how to manage the learning curve – effectively teaching the player a new skill in a way that is challenging them to explore new aspects of this skill at every level, right on the edge of their ability without being past it. Portal is one of the most acclaimed games of this century for this reason – every time the player is reaching mastery of a portal technique a new aspect of portaling is revealed to them, a way to apply what they’ve learned in a novel way that unlocks new avenues to explore and learn. It is a learning super-stimulus. (plus GLaDOS is awesome).

Two things happen as you get older. The first is simple experience – once you’ve gone through your first good FPS, or Tower Defense, or RTS, you’ve exhausted that learning path. Further games in that genre will always be less compelling unless they introduce a new mechanic to learn. But much more salient to my point – the older you get the less biologically driven you are to learn things at all.

While I don’t think learning ever becomes not-fun, it becomes less and less fun compared to other activities as one gets older. And since play is the act of learning, play itself simply becomes less fun due to hormonal reasons. I’ve started to notice this in myself as well – I get less enjoyment out of learning new things than I do out of creating lasting stuff (like a chicken coop, or a YouTube short, or a podcast). Before learning would be an end in itself, and if I never applied any of it I didn’t care. Now it’s often a means to an end, and I get impatient with learning things that I don’t think I’ll have much use to apply in the real world. Video games and boardgames just aren’t that interesting anymore.

I can see how this trend could continue, to where I get annoyed with having to learn new things even if they ARE applicable. Like how to use that new-fangled VCR or SmartPhone. I just want to Do My Thing, why’s everything gotta be so complicated?

I am tempted to throw out evo-psych justifications for this (early life is for learning, mid-life is for doing. What’s the point of just learning if you don’t do stuff with it before you die?) But we’ve all been warned away from falling into the trap of inventing just-so stories for our pet observations, so I’ll leave it as a parenthetical and not expound on the issue.

What I’m driving at is this: it’s not that new games suck, and there was a golden age of gaming. This is just yet another instance of a generation aging and saying “Thing X really reached its peak back when I was in my teens & twenties. That was the golden age, the new stuff just isn’t as good.” And it’s not that the new stuff isn’t as good. I see tons of 20-somethings who love the hell out of the games coming out now, and raise an eyebrow at what we call the Classics. It’s that we’re getting older and our brains are resistant to New Things (including new learning and play). I find this is the case with everything ever labeled as having a “Golden Age.” Sometimes I look at the Golden Age of comics and I think “Wow… I’m glad we live in an awful degenerate age, cuz that Golden stuff is crap.” When we try to play and expect to get the same reaction as we did back when our neurochemistry was primed to most enjoy playing, the fault isn’t with the games nowadays, it’s with your understanding of what is enjoyable to you given the body you are in.