Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gender Roles in Movies and the Bechdel Test







I recently watched this TED talk:


It's a short and interesting discussion on the roles that males and females play in movies, particularly kid's movies, and how much influence the behaviour of the protagonists might be having on children and their view of the world. One big example is the typical hero's journey story, where the male protagonist must embark on a journey and fight to eventually achieve some goal, which will often be a female depicted as a prize or reward to be 'won' by the hero (or at least whose affections must be 'won' through heroism).

Not wanting to digress into the topic of objectification of women in movies, what I want to talk about here is an interesting test that the speaker in the above talk made me aware of, one that acts as a basic but surprisingly effective gauge of just how well women are being represented in movies. It's called the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel Test


Simply stated, a movie passes the Bechdel test if it can meet the following criteria:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
Sounds like a pretty low bar, right? And it certainly should be. The test is far from bulletproof, but it serves as a rough guide as to whether women are actually being represented as fleshed out characters, or if they only exist as love interests to the male characters, or to support them rather than having any independent story of their own.

Now, it's certainly true that some movies may fail the test for non-sexist reasons, such as In The Name of the Rose, which is set in a monastery, or Gravity, which clearly has a strong female protagonist, but simply not enough characters to pass the test. I won't single out any of these kinds of movies here.

So, here are some popular and well known movies that fail the test (that you might otherwise expect them not to):
  • The entire Star Wars original trilogy
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • All Indiana Jones movies
  • Avatar
  • The Avengers
  • Total Recall (both versions, and even with the remake having both Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale in major roles, plenty of men talk to each other about stuff, but no two women do the same)

And some big movies just from the last year that all fail the test:
  • Star Trek into Darkness
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Internship
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Grown-Ups 2
  • Hangover 3
  • Gangster Squad
  • Jack the Giant Slayer
  • Pacific Rim
  • Pain and Gain
  • Planes
  • Riddick
  • RIPD
  • This is the End
  • The World's End
  • Warm Bodies
  • White House Down
  • Olympus Has Fallen
Now, you might complain and say that some of the movies listed above are clearly 'guy' movies, such as Hangover 3. But I think part of the point is that so many of our movies, and most of the biggest budget ones, are 'guy' movies, and maybe that's a problem.


Looking at the IMDB top 10 movies, only 4 of the movies pass the test:
  • The Godfather Part 2
  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Dark Knight
  • Schindler's List
Though it should be noted that both Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight barely pass the test and it's a bit questionable if they should be included.

Now, being positive, here are a few big movies from the last year that actually do pass the test:
  • World War Z
  • Elysium
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
  • The Heat
  • Fast and Furious 6
  • Iron Man 3
  • Man of Steel
  • Red 2
  • The Smurfs 2
  • We're the Millers
Again, it should be noted that some of these just barely scrape by (e.g. World War Z, Iron Man 3, man of Steel), so they shouldn't exactly start patting themselves on the back or anything!

An interesting resource that has categorization of thousands of movies with discussion as to why they pass or fail the test can be found here: http://bechdeltest.com


The Male Bechdel Test


As an alternative to the Bechdel test, I thought of a test that, for want of a better name, I call the Male Bechdel test. It's basically taking the same rules as the Bechdel test, and applying them to men. Given the number of big movies that don't have two women speaking to each other about something other than a man, I think it would be really interesting to know how many movies don't have at least two men talking to each other about something other than a woman.

I'm betting the list will be pretty small, if we again don't count movies where there aren't enough characters to pass or if the setting makes it reasonable not to have men there. Though interestingly, Gravity, which fails the Bechdel test despite being almost entirely centered on Sandra Bullock's character, still passes the Male Bechdel test, with George Clooney's character talking to both the other male astronaut at the start of the movie, and the male mission control character!

I haven't been able to find any online references that look at something like the Male Bechdel test, and I can't think of any movies off the top of my head that definitely fail it, though there are probably various romantic comedies and female-centered dramas that will fail. However, I have a suspicion that a surprising number of them would still pass.


Conclusion


In the end, I think the main thing I learned from looking into the Bechdel test is how far we still are from having interesting female characters in movies that are considered mainstream movies (and not 'chick flicks'). There will always be gung-ho action movies that will be uninteresting to most women, and there will always be romance/relationship movies that will be uninteresting to most men, but it shouldn't be so rare to have interesting female characters in the vast array of general movies that are supposed to appeal to both sexes.

I recently watched the movie Brave for the first time, Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist. It's a shame that the movie wasn't really that good, due largely to having the director replaced half way through, because from what I heard, the original vision of the movie would have been one that people could point to as a positive example of a movie with a female protagonist. Instead, it may end up being used as an excuse by movie executives to say, "see, people don't want female protagonists. It doesn't sell."

Let's hope movie studios will continue trying to make movies with strong female characters, and that we, the consumers, reward those efforts so they keep on happening, rather than proving to the studios that they're right to think that people don't want to see a change in the status quo.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shooting Guns

Diana and I went to an indoor shooting range and fired real guns for the first time. After years of using these things in computer games and seeing them in countless movies and TV shows, we decided it was finally time to go and see what it's like to fire a gun in real life.

The shooting range we went to has a setup that allows unlicensed people to come in and shoot with no training. The barrels of the guns are attached by wires and a metal post inside the shooting booth in such a way that you can have fairly free movement of the weapon but you can't rotate it around from facing downrange. This greatly increases the safety while not taking too much away from the experience, and I think it's a great compromise.

We decided to try a cross-section of different weapons to get a better feel for firing guns in general, so based on what they had available, we chose the following three weapons:
  • .22 bolt action rifle with a 10 round magazine
  • 9mm Glock 17 pistol with a 10 round magazine
  • Double barrel shotgun (not sure what gauge)
The firing range instructor brought each weapon out one at a time, showed us how to load and fire, and then left us in the booth to fire our rounds before moving on to the next one. Overall it was a great experience. They were fast and efficient, explaining just enough to us so we didn't hurt ourselves, but not wasting too much time on excess details. It was also nice to see that they were professionals and didn't at all come across like gung-ho gun nuts or bogans. Can't say the same for most of the other people we saw coming in to the range to shoot, but when any asshole can walk in off the street and throw down $100 to fire a .44 Magnum, I guess that's not too surprising!

Based on our experience, here are the few things that stood out for me that I thought were particularly interesting (in no particular order):
  •  I was impressed at how well the hearing protection blocks out sound, while still allowing you to talk to each other (if you speak very loudly). I felt like I could spend all day there and not be worried about my hearing.
  • Eye protection is absolutely essential, at least in a confined space like a shooting booth. Those empty casings really like to fly around and smack you in the head!
  • I was expecting it to be hard to aim, but was still surprised at just how hard it was. I found the pistol easier to aim than the rifle, but possibly because with the lighting in the range and wearing eye protection, even at only 10 metres I couldn't see where my shots were hitting the target with the tiny .22 ammo.
  • .22 rifle feels like a kid's toy. No noticeable recoil and very lightweight.
  • 9mm had a little more kick than I was expecting. I found it hard to control when I tried firing a few shots in quick succession, though I'm sure you improve a lot with practice.
  • Shotgun had less recoil than I expected. Still hard to aim though.
  • Loading bullets in magazines was harder than I expected. I didn't even think it would be an issue, but on the Glock in particular it was quite difficult. The magazine spring was quite stiff and I actually couldn't get the 10th round in. I'm hardly a weak person, so this was quite surprising to me. I suppose maybe there's a trick to doing it, but I certainly felt like I was putting a lot of force on the top bullet trying to force it down but I just couldn't get it low enough to get the last bullet in.
  • Guns are really poorly represented in computer games. The idea that games teach you how to shoot guns now seems even more ridiculous to me than it did before. I've spent hundreds of hours firing weapons like these in games over the years, but I can't shoot a real gun for shit, at least not without a lot more practice on the real thing. Even at 10 metres there would be a reasonable chance I would miss a person with a rifle or pistol like the ones I fired. Particularly if you add in all the shakiness from adrenaline that you would have in real life.
  • I think schools should take 15-16 year old students, particularly males, to ranges like these and get them to fire a gun for real. With all the shooting that teenagers do these days in games like Call of Duty, and the gung-ho shit-talking that it results in, I think the experience of firing a real weapon would be a reality check that might teach them something valuable, like just because they can own a hundred people online with a badass modded sniper rifle or dual wielded MP7s doesn't mean they know jack shit about fighting and violence in the real world.
All in all, it's an experience I would recommend to anyone who has never fired a gun. It's fun, it's a bit scary, and it will help calibrate your understanding of what guns can and can't do, what movies and computer games can and can't teach, and what place these tools should have in our society.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trip to Southern Coast of WA


I recently did a 4 day driving trip with Diana and her parents, Tony and Olga, visiting various places along the southern coast of Western Australia. The intention was to see as many of the most interesting sights as possible in this area in the time available. There was definitely a lot more we could have seen and we would have liked more time at various places, but all in all, we were quite happy with our choices.

This blog is a run-through of where we went and what we did.

Trip Overview

Day 1 - Thursday 15th August


Busselton


Busselton Jetty

We started out at around 7am, heading down the freeway towards Busselton. The forecast was intermittent rain for the whole trip, but we were hoping for it to be clear at Busselton so we could walk along the jetty. It's almost 2km long, so you want about 45 minutes or so to go to the end and back.

Rain started to set in around 10 minutes out of Busselton, but it had cleared when we got there. Unfortunately the little train on the jetty was out of action, meaning Tony and Olga would have to walk it. But it turned out that the underwater observatory at the end was also closed for renovation. So we went to the cafe near the jetty and had breakfast.

After having breakfast and going into the jetty gift store, ominous clouds moved in from the east and the store got crowded as other tourists piled in to escape the rain. We stayed in there for about 20 minutes as the heavy wind and rain mostly passed, then went back to the car in the light rain that followed, having given up on the jetty walk at this point. No big deal since Diana and I have done it before.

We stopped in at the Simmo's ice cream shop and bought some giant decaf coffees (in milkshake cups!) and got back on the road.


Margaret River


Mammoth Cave

We drove down towards Margaret River, stopping in at some local producers along the way. First was a nut and grain shop, run by a South African couple. The guy was friendly and a little quirky, and sounded like Sharlto Copley's character Wikus in District 9. I wanted to ask him to say "fookin prawns", but thought he might get offended.

Next we went to a local silk producer and got a lesson on how their silk is made. After learning that the silk is grown locally but then shipped to Cambodia to have some poor bastards manually unreel the silk cocoons, and that it takes thousands of these to make a silk garment,  I was unsure whether to feel that this represented a fair work opportunity for them, or horrible exploitation. Either way, I think I'd have trouble buying silk clothes knowing the sheer amount of cheap human labour that goes into them.

Finally we stopped in at a dairy place and bought some awesome cheeses. We drove into Margaret River and stopped on the main street, where it was raining yet again. Quick visit to a hemp garment shop and lunch at a kebab/seafood/gozleme place, and we were on the road again.

We stopped at Mammoth Cave, one of the many caves in this region. This one allows for a self-guided tour, so we did that, and there were a lot of really interesting rock formations in the cave, as well as the bones of long extinct megafauna. The cave has two entrances, so we were able to exit into the middle of some forest and then work our way back to the carpark.


Augusta


At Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

We drove down through Augusta and went to the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse which is a little bit further along and is the most southwestern point of Australia. Wind had picked up to a ridiculous level here along with some rain, so we just saw it from the car. Diana and I have been here before so that was okay. We then headed back to Augusta and checked in to our rather excellent apartment for the evening. Quick trip to IGA for supplies and we were done for the day.


Day 2 - Friday 16th August


Pemberton


The excellent Millhouse Cafe in Pemberton

Old Railway Station

We headed over to Pemberton, an old logging town with a lot of history. Two things we were most excited about here were the tram ride and climbing the Gloucester Tree, a 60 metre high tree originally used as a lookout point for fires, that you climb via metal bars that have been jammed into the tree to form climbing rungs.

When we got to the Pemberton information centre and museum, we were told that the tree was closed for climbing due to the rain. After looking around a bit it was now about 11am so we headed over to the one nice looking cafe in town to get some lunch and kill a bit of time before the tram ride at 2pm. The cafe was great, given the cold, rainy weather outside. We sat on sofas next to the fire place and enjoyed meals, cake and coffee.

After being warned that the tram ride would get quite cold, we rugged up and got on board. It went for almost two hours and was quite interesting, with the driver giving information along the way. But the most interesting part was when a branch got stuck in the wheels and the driver couldn't dislodge it, so he pulled out a chainsaw, opened a panel on the floor, and sawed it in half! It was pretty hardcore, and the woman sitting in the seat next to the floor panel looked a little concerned.

It turned out that the tram ride didn't go as far as it normally would have, due to some flooding damage on one of the bridges a couple of years ago. We got back and headed over to the Gloucester Tree. There were various signs up warning about climbing the tree during dangerous conditions, but nothing actually stopped you from climbing if you wanted to. We tested our shoes on the rungs to be sure that they had traction, and decided to go for it.

The climb was fairly straightforward and a lot of fun, though you can easily get disoriented if you look through the rungs and focus on distant objects while climbing. Coming down was a bit trickier for me because it had started to rain and the rungs were slippery, and my shoes weren't very grippy. So I really held on hard with my hands while descending so I wouldn't slip off and kill myself, so my forearms were actually quite tired by the end. Diana has these Reebok zig-zag soled shoes that nicely locked on to the rungs so she was quite comfortable descending.

We finally left Pemberton at around 5pm and drove on some fun, windy roads in the rain to get to Denmark. I think I scared the others a little bit with my driving, but our Mazda 3 SP25 sticks to the road really nicely so it was a great couple of hours of driving for me.


Day 3 - Saturday 17th August


Treetop Walk


40 metres above the ground!

We had to head back west about 50km to return to the treetop walk, which we had passed the previous day on our trip from Pemberton to Denmark. The previous two days had been a lot of fun driving because it was during the week and with all the rain, not many people were out being tourists. Now, being Saturday, the roads were a little busier, but still with plenty of bad weather it wasn't too bad.

The treetop walk is quite impressive. Big steel walkways suspended 40 metres in the air at the tallest point, but with gradual slope from the ground so that even someone in a wheelchair could traverse it. It feels a little odd that this structure has been built in the middle of nowhere, but it's well made and maintained, so I'm sure it attracts plenty of tourists. We got stuck in some rain back on the ground and ended up having to wait inside the base of a giant tree for it to pass. Tony and Olga were smart and brought rain jackets, so they were able to laugh at me and Diana and keep on walking :)


Denmark


Elephant Rocks

We headed back towards Denmark and wanted to check out a winery that also made and sold cheese and fudge. Only some of the roads are sealed around this area, and we ended up driving quite a distance on a badly chosen dirt road, which took some time because we didn't want to hit any of the large potholes in the Mazda 3. It was worth the effort though, as the winery was quite nice, and we stopped there for coffee and cake.

Getting back in to town, we went down Ocean Beach Road to take a look at where the Wilson Inlet meets the ocean. There is a big beach/sandbar here that blocks the two from actually connecting, and looks really cool. We would have liked to have gone walking along it if we had more time, but there were too many other things to see.

By this point we were all getting hungry so we went in to town to look for somewhere nice to eat. Unfortunately, some of the cafes had already closed for the day at this point, and nothing was really jumping out at us. We were all feeling like some seafood, and were disappointed to not find a single fish and chip shop in the town. The local service station sold fish and chips, but we weren't that desperate.

After almost giving up, we found a nice little bistro next to the river that we had completely missed earlier on, which had great food, including some really nice seafood platters. So that was lunch sorted out. We dropped Tony and Olga off at the chalets we were staying in, and Diana and I headed off to check out some of the cool beaches in the area.

The most interesting beachy thing to see in Denmark is Elephant Rocks. This is a group of huge, smoothed rocks sitting on the water's edge, and they're quite impressive to see. We walked around these and then decided to continue walking along the rocks and beaches. Then we noticed that some heavy rain was moving in from the west, and it seemed unlikely that we'd get back to the car before it reached us.

This area was quite exposed with no natural caves or overhangs nearby that we could shelter in. Luckily I had some disposable rain ponchos stashed in my backpack, so we found a comfortable rock we could crouch down against and covered ourselves with the ponchos. Because of the high wind pushing the rain against the back of the rock we were behind, the rain mostly blew over the top of us rather than coming straight down, so we were actually fairly well sheltered.

Once the rain eased up a bit we headed back to the car and then back to the chalet for the evening.

Day 4 - Sunday 18th August


Albany


Natural Bridge

Heading out to Albany, we first stopped in for breakfast at a place called Cosy Corner, because how could you not stop in at a place called Cosy Corner? It was a pretty nice place and the food was good. We then continued on to Albany and our first stop, Whale World.

Whale World is an old whale processing facility that is now a museum. It looked quite interesting but we didn't really have the time to do a tour of it, so we continued on to check out some of the natural formations nearby. The most interesting was The Gap and Natural Bridge. This is two side-by-side formations, one being a big gap in the rocks about 20 metres high that has some powerful waves crashing into it, looking very impressive. The natural bridge is a large natural arch with water coming in underneath it. It all looks very cool and you can walk around on it as much as you want.

After this we went to the Princess Royal Fortress, an old military installation on a hill in Albany. There isn't much to see there, certainly nothing 'fortressy', just some old gun emplacements and barracks and a few other buildings. It was interesting, but less impressive than I had hoped.

We drove through Albany and got some lunch, then began the trip home, via Porongurup.

Castle Rock

View from the top of Castle Rock

We drove to the Porongurup Range and stopped at a place called Castle Rock. This is a big and impressive rock formation that has had a skywalk built on top of it which provides stunning views. It requires a 2km walk uphill to get to it, but is well worth the effort. We had set aside 2 hours for the return trip as per recommendations, but found that it only took about 1 hour 15 minutes. There were hardly any people there, so we could enjoy the view in peace.

There is a short climb up to the skywalk where they've added some big steel handholds to make it easier, but I was surprised that they didn't add a few extra ones in some key positions. It was no trouble for us, but they came so close to making it accessible for older and weaker people, so it was a bit odd that they didn't go to the extra effort.

After getting back to the car we began the 400km drive back along the Albany Highway to Perth. This was fairly uneventful, and we got back in to Perth at around 7:30pm.

All in all it was a great trip, and I think the cooler weather and rain actually added to the enjoyment. It made it a pleasure every time you went into a place that had a fireplace, and it was great to do lots of walking around without getting sweaty and uncomfortable, which tends to be the norm for me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Manning, Snowden and Chilling Effects

There has been plenty of discussion in the media, amongst politicians and people in general over the actions of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, and whether, in each case, they deserve to be called 'whistleblower' or 'traitor'. People seem to be mostly willing to consider Snowden to be a whistleblower, and support his right to be protected with this status. Manning seems to have less support, and I think this is interesting.

The main negative arguments people can make against Snowden are:
  • He broke his contract to the NSA by revealing classified information.
  • He ran off to another country to escape 'justice', which makes him look like a traitor.
  • We already knew everything that he revealed.
I don't think any of these arguments holds up. The first point is true for any whistleblower (i.e. they will typically be under some sort of contract forbidding them to release confidential information), which is precisely why the government needs to provide protection to whistleblowers. The second point is entiredly justified behaviour on his part, given the US government treatment of Manning, not to mention use of things such as extraordinary rendition for people who have been deemed 'enemies'. And the last point is certainly false, given each new document that the Guardian continues to publish. Plus, the reaction from politicians, the general public, and foreign countries (such as Germany) would make no sense if all of this information was already known.

All in all, it seems pretty clear that Snowden released important information about unconstitutional activities being performed by the US government, and that he deserves protection as a whistleblower for doing this service. Given the amount of key internet infrastructure that is based in the US, and the number of large US internet corporations that the whole world has become dependent on, and which have been compromised by the NSA, it is hard to overstate the importance of getting this information out to the world.

In the case of Manning, it gets complicated by two key factors:
  • He is part of the military, which is subject to its own code of justice.
  • He released a large, unfocused mass of information, rather than just documents that specifically showed illegal activity.
Many people have argued that Manning doesn't deserve to be considered a whistleblower because much of the content he released (such as diplomatic cables) had nothing to do with illegal activities and simply caused embarrassment to the US government and made it harder for it to perform its functions. While there is certainly truth to this, the important part that seems to be so often ignored is that he released evidence of illegal activities. He released, amongst other things, video of the US military killing innocent civilians in Iraq. While Manning has been charged with releasing these videos, no charges have been filed against the soldiers responsible for this.

So the response to all of this has been that Manning was held in solitary confinement for months, in conditions that have been called "cruel and inhuman" by the UN, and has subsequently been found guilty of a number of charges, which could lead to a sentence of over 100 years.

The big question is this: Imagine Bradley Manning had released only evidence of illegal activities, and no other documents. Would he have been treated differently by the US goverment? Would he not have been held in cruel and inhuman conditions, and would he have been acquitted of all charges, such as espionage? If the answer is no, which I think is almost certainly the case, then we have a fundamental problem, since in this case Manning would undoubtedly be a whistleblower, making the public aware of illegal activity covered up by the government. And we would have the government horribly punishing a whistleblower, which would have a massive chilling effect on anyone else thinking of doing the same thing.

In a time where the US public is forced to put a huge amount of trust in their government to not abuse all of the secrecy that they take advantage of, it's very important that there are massive penalties to the government for betraying this trust. We need an environment where the costs of performing and covering up illegal activities are so high that the government will never consider it to be a better option than coming clean.

My proposal is that whenever someone releases evidence of illegal activity covered up by the government, then they should be given a free pass on any other information that they also disclose. Yes, this could mean disclosure of all manner of secret and damaging information. And yes, this information might be a huge benefit to the country's enemies. And that's exactly why it would actually have a chance at having a deterrent effect.

The government will always have the option to protect itself from such a damaging disclosure, of course: don't perform illegal activities, and if you do, don't cover it up! In the same way that Wall Street investment banks continue to break the law because the fines that they receive are smaller than the benefits they get from it, the government will continue to cover up illegal activity if this seems to be less risky than coming clean. But if they knew that a whistleblower would be protected no matter what they revealed as long as they revealed the illegal activity, well, that might actually change something.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Star Wars and Innovation

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." -- Henry Ford

People have been complaining more and more in recent years about the lack of creativity on the part of the major motion picture studios and other big media producers. We seem to be getting more and more sequels, prequels, reboots, and transfers of IP from one medium to another, and less original content. The term franchise is now so standard that we don't even think twice about whether movies should exist as a franchise in the first place.

It's easy to point the finger at the big studios not being willing to take risks, or trying to maximize profits by making movies that have brand familiarity in order to make marketing easier and more effective. But I think we all know that we're a large part of the problem due to the way we vote with our wallets. If we keep paying for the same old shit, we'll keep getting the same old shit.

There is a limit to the number of big budget movies that can get released each year due to the time required to launch an effective advertising campaign. So studios will put their safest movies in these slots and throw huge money behind them, until we stop making these movies safe bets. New innovative ideas will keep getting crowded out of an already saturated market until this happens.

The Lone Ranger is a perfect recent example of how the public can effectively kill a cynical franchise attempt if they want to. The final verdict is still out at this point in time, but I think it's almost certain that there won't be a sequel. Spewing any old piece of brandname recognition at the audience in a desperate attempt to make money should not be rewarded by us, and this is how we do it.

On the other hand, the huge failure of John Carter last year is the kind of thing that scares studios away from trying something new (or at least adapting something that is relatively unfamiliar to most of the audience). And so they inevitably go back to churning out more shitty superhero movies because that's the current safe bet.

Or Star Wars.

Star Wars is now 36 years old. We've seen multiple movies, TV shows, computer games, and all manner of merchandising tie-ins. Now that Disney has paid $4 billion for it, there is going to be a shit-ton more in the next few years. They've already announced plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year. There is a Star Wars theme park opening. There will be all sorts of game tie-ins and anything else Disney can think of to make the most of their investment. Disney has a nice new lucrative reason to continue not to innovate any time in the near future.

There's lots to love about the Star Wars universe, but when will people finally have enough and ask for something new? Sure, if someone asks you, "Would you like a new big budget Star Wars movie or game?", anyone who grew up on it will probably say yes. Why wouldn't you want it?

But we need to stop thinking in those terms, and start thinking in terms of the trade off. Do you want a new Star Wars thing so much that you're happy to not get other things? What if, back in 1999, it had been, "Would you like a Star Wars prequel, or this new movie idea called The Matrix?". We would have lost a huge cultural phenomenon all so we could get, "Ani! Meesa too lazy to make new idea!" This is what we're doing every time we keep paying for the same old shit, and we never get to find out what alternatives we missed out on.

It's been 36 years of light sabers, the Force, and barely disguised racial stereotype aliens. It's been a fun ride, but can't we just let this fucking franchise end already? Wouldn't it be nice to have some new memes and cultural references in the next decade or two? There are so many great fictional universes out there to create and explore. Do you really want to be on your deathbed when you're 80 years old and still be wondering what other adventures Yoda got up to?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Used Games

With the recent announcements of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, there has been a lot of attention given to the used games market, and what policies would be put in place regarding the ability to sell used games for these platforms.

It's well known that the major games publishers do not like the used games market, since they do not get a cut of these sales, and there have been various attempts at diminishing this market, such as EA's Online Pass program, which made each game ship with a single use unlock code for online access, and required a purchase of around $10 to unlock online features if that used copy was sold to someone else. Since EA has the policy of including online features on every title, this amounted to decreased selling value of all EA titles in the second hand market. EA has recently cancelled the program.

It's easy to paint the publishers as the evil entities in this discussion, particularly since they do a spectacular job themselves of constantly reminding us that they are only in the industry to make profit, with little to no interest in promoting the creation of good games for their own sake. However, it's important to acknowledge that games retailers have been a big part of the problem, with a track record of pushing the sales of used games (at often only a very small discount to the brand new copies), and making it harder for consumers to buy new copies. This results in higher profits for the retailers, but reduces profits to the publishers, and thus to the developers, putting an increased strain on the industry.

The third side of this triangle, that is generally overlooked, is the consumers. How much responsibility do we have for the current games sales landscape? After all, we cast the final vote with our wallets, and while that doesn't give us dominating power, perhaps we are more responsible for the current state of affairs than we like to admit.

When Microsoft announced that the Xbox One would not support used games (or more correctly, would allow publishers to define the policy for their titles, which in practice would amount to the same thing for most titles), there was a huge uproar from the community. Sony capitalized on this, announcing at E3 that they would completely support resale of used games. Microsoft was then forced to backpedal and announce the same.

But, while all this strong support for used games is happening on consoles, the PC gaming landscape is vastly different, and has been so for a while. Steam has grown to become the centre of PC games distribution, a hub for digital purchases, and increasingly for physical purchases. Several of the last PC games I bought, such as Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution, and Remember Me, all required Steam to play.

Why does this matter? Steam does not allow resale of used games. Every game purchased is tied to an account, and can never be resold. Steam has been going now for about 8 years, and this feature of the system has become embedded in the PC gaming landscape with very little resistance from gamers.

Why do console gamers care about their right to resell games they've purchased, while PC gamers have so happily given it up? The console market relies heavily on used games, as much as publishers don't like to admit it. It matters to teenagers and young adults that they can trade in their games towards the next purchase, effectively reducing the cost per game to these people, while older gamers with more disposable income are generally happy to purchase full price and keep their games.

The PC gaming landscape no longer has this feature. It used to be possible to sell used PC games, but no games retailer will accept them any more. Thanks to many of them being tied to a Steam key, they are useless to sell anyway. The physical copy you buy in the store is nothing more than a Steam unlock and physical data backup of a digital purchase, with zero resale value.

Given these facts, is it any wonder that piracy is so rampant on PCs? Sure, it's much easier to download an illegal copy of a game for PC than for a console (which requires a hardware modification), but creating a landscape of "full price or pirate" doesn't exactly help. Add to the fact that I can pop down to my local video store right now and rent any of the latest Xbox 360 or PS3 games for a couple of bucks, crank through it in a weekend, and return it, but I can't do this either on the PC.

We've created an ecosystem that heavily supports piracy on the PC, and we, the consumers, bear a lot of the blame. The allure of 75% off Steam sales is all that it takes for us to happily give away the right of first sale, not thinking about the long term consequences of our actions. PC gamers like to think they're a more sophisticated crowd than the teenage and dudebro console crowd, yet this console crowd seems to have a better grasp of consumer rights and maintaining a sales landscape that has a place for consumers of all income levels.

If we want quality PC titles to keep being made, and to stop the PC games market from being a 95% piracy afterthought, perhaps we need to question the unwavering support for Steam and trading our rights to buy occasional stuff on sale.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Damsel in Distress: Thoughts on Women as Objects in Games

I recently watched the first two parts of the web series being made by Anita Sarkeesian looking at the treatment of women in video games, specifically focusing on variations of the 'damsel in distress' trope. I recommend watching these as they are well made and contain a lot of food for thought and a lot that we in the games industry should probably be ashamed of.




There are plenty of good examples in these videos of women being used as simple objects, like trophies, as a prize for the male protagonist to win, with no will or agency of their own. And there are some pretty embarrassing examples of blatant sexism in video game advertising, such as the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time television ad from 1998 that contains the splash text, "And in the end, willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?"

I wouldn't argue for a second that Sarkeesian doesn't have a lot of good points or that the games industry has been a shining example of gender equality and female empowerment. However, I do have a strong suspicion that she is seeing games a little too strongly through a feminist lens and is not stepping back to consider other possible explanations for some of the things that she insists must be sexism and mysogyny at their core.

It is a common problem with people who are passionate about a particular cause to have a tendency to see everything through the lens of that cause. So you get feminists who interpret everything men do through a lens of sexism, racial minorities who interpret the actions of other races as racially motivated, or anti-religious people like myself tending to interpret the actions of religious people as always being religiously based. Being well aware of this flaw in myself and constantly looking out for when I'm overreaching, I also try to notice when other people do it, and point it out, even when I'm in general agreement with them, as is the case here with Sarkeesian.

Narrative Expedience


I think the fundamental issue here is that she is falling foul of a version of: "Don't attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence". Though in this case I think it's: "Don't attribute to malice what you can attribute to expedience".

Games, like movies and television, often have the need to set up characters and situations quickly, so they can get on with their main purpose. As a result, we often see characters that fit well worn stereotypes, and clichéd situations and character motivations. This is done so that the audience will be able to relate to the situation and get on board the narrative. In a medium such as novels, this is less necessary since there is more time to develop characters and circumstances, but when you're trying to quickly get things established and get the audience on board, tropes, clichés and stereotypes are the standard way to do it.

So, given that we know most games are made with men as the target audience, typically teenagers or young adults, it shouldn't be surprising that games will fall back on tropes that this audience will understand. Like action movies, a lot of games are primarily about the action and not focused on telling a deep story or fleshing out characters in any kind of substantial arc. You need a simple, quick to explain motivator for the main character that justifies his actions throughout the game/movie to follow.


The Protective Instinct


Most men have a hardwired instinct to protect, in the same way most women have a natural nurturing instinct. I'm not going to go into the obvious evolutionary reasons behind this; it should be fairly common knowledge. But men, particularly young men, also have the desire to gain respect, be seen as brave and heroic, and so many of our stories and tropes over the years have been based around this.

And this is where women fit in so perfectly. Having a woman in distress as the primary motivator in a story taps in to both the male's protective instinct, that need to save a woman in danger, and also gain respect and be a hero. Combining all of this together is a powerful motivator that most men understand immediately, which serves perfectly for a lot of games.

You could make a game about the hero trying to get back his stolen car, but it's just not going to resonate in the same way. Even the story about rescuing another man is just not the same. Rescuing a son will resonate a lot more than these previous two, but there's just something about protecting a woman that is different. 

Now, this in itself could well be an example of sexism in the sense that men have a tendency to see women as helpless or in need of protection, but it's based on a long evolutionary history of men fighting other men for the possession of women. We may not live in that kind of world so much these days (at least not in Western countries), but the instinct is still there. Removing it would be like telling a woman not to feel warm and fuzzy when she sees a newborn baby. These are some of our deepest instincts, evolved for good reasons.

One other thing to consider is that games often have the protagonist killing hundreds or thousands of people in a way that could only be considered psychotic in the real world. Like movies, they need to be heightened versions of reality to be satisfying, since they are experienced at a distance. We're not actually in the scene, but experiencing it through a screen. So, while in real life, experiencing shooting a single actual human being would be a traumatic experience, in a game or movie, we get to experience a taste of the adrenaline and badassery of being an action hero, without the guilt and trauma of reality.

However, we still need to have a believable motivation for our actions. Especially as games get more realistic, we need to feel like the character isn't going around killing people because his ice cream fell out of the cone. It needs to be reasons that resonate: saving a loved one, avenging a murder, saving the world.

Conclusion


In the end, I definitely feel that we should keep trying to increase the maturity of the games industry, producing games with more complicated characters and narratives, and giving women more to do than be a trophy. We can do this while still acknowledging that sometimes tropes are used simply because they allow a game to get to its primary purpose faster, and not with the intention to be sexist, racist, or any other -ist.

The Last of Us comes out in a few days time, and it's currently being heaped with praise in reviews because of its believable characters. I'm sure this praise is well deserved, and this will be one example of a game that tries to flesh out its female character beyond the usual clichés. But at its heart, it's a game about a middle aged man and a 14 year old girl trying to survive, and if you think they won't be taking advantage of the natural protective instinct of every male who plays this game, you're crazy!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

94% of Communication is Non-verbal? Actually, no.

I was recently reading the book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and in it the author mentions several times the statistic that 94% of communication is non-verbal. That is, the vast majority of information we transmit to others during face to face communication is non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on, while only a very small fraction of the information we transmit is the actual words that we speak.

I've come across this statistic several times in the past in various places, as I'm sure have most other people (if not the specific 94% number, then probably something very similar). So I finally decided to do a little research into where it comes from, and if it's actually true.

94% is fiction


As you probably already guessed, the 94% figure is not true (if it was, I probably wouldn't be writing this post!). The source of this specific figure is... Kramer. Cosmo Kramer. The character in the TV show Seinfeld. That's right, if you ever see the specific value of 94% mentioned in this context, it has almost certainly come from an episode of Seinfeld.

It's quite amusing to think that various serious books, communications workshops, etc. are using a statistic pulled from a fictional character, but surely this value came from somewhere respectable, right? Well, actually yes, but with some very big caveats that change the value of the statistic significantly.

93% is not much better


The original source of high non-verbal communication numbers like 94% is a paper written by Albert Mehrabian in 1972. In the studies on which the paper is based, he found a value of 93%. That seems pretty damn close, right? What the hell am I being so picky for?

Well, as it turns out, this value of 93% only occurred under very specific circumstances: when subjects were reading out single words with positive, neutral (ambiguous) or negative connotations in either positive, neutral or negative tone of voice, or with positive, negative, or neutral facial expressions. So, in other words, when saying a single word with forced (rather than natural) tone of voice or facial expression, people used the tone or facial expression to judge the overall content of the message much more than the word itself.

Or, to put it simply, circumstances that have absolutely no relation to people conducting natural conversations in the real world.

To be fair, Mehrabian never claimed that his studies were providing broad, general answers to this question. That has been done by other people since, who, in a fashion we see so often with the application of scientific data, have taken a paper's results way out of context and subsequently misled other people as a result.

So what is the answer?


It shouldn't be a surprise that there is no general answer to this question. The amount of information transmitted verbally and non-verbally in conversation is going to be highly dependent on the topic being discussed, the conversational nature of the person talking, and also on the person being spoken to. Some people are much more emotive with their tone of voice and body gestures while talking. Some people are better at reading body language and verbal cues.

As we've all learned by writing emails and SMSes, it's often necessary to provide extra markup to plain text (such as smilies or sarcasm quotes) in order to get intention across, so it's not surprising that non-verbal components play some role in communication, and maybe even a big role. But anyone who throws a specific figure at you or suggests that there is a single value for how much of communication is non-verbal, well, that person <sarcasm> is really clever and insightful </sarcasm>.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

gSurveillanceState



People have long feared the government invading their privacy and knowing too much about them. The concept of an Orwellian "1984"-style big brother state is almost a cliché, and Americans in particular have been very sensitive to this idea. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the loss of privacy in the US has become a much bigger deal as laws such as the Patriot Act provide the government with greater tools for privacy invasion than ever before. This loss of privacy and civil liberties has been noticed and condemned by many, but a large number of Americans have also supported the changes to a large degree due to fear and a need for the government to make them feel safe.

Despite all of this, a new, even larger threat to privacy has emerged in the last few years that everyone across   the globe should be concerned about, since it is rapidly gaining the ability to invade our privacy in ways that the government probably never even dreamed of, and it's happening right under our own noses. We're all aware of it to some degree, but very few people seem to be aware of just how widespread the problem already is, and how much worse it's going to get.

I'm talking about the rise of private companies collecting, using, and selling mountains of data about who we are, where we are, what we do, and who we do it with.

The user is the product


We've entered the age of Big Data, where many companies are collecting huge quantities of information about us, data mining it for their own uses, or selling it on to third parties. Google is probably the most well known example, with Facebook in second place. These companies make no secret of the fact that we, the seeming users of their products, are actually the product. 

Google collects lots of different types of data, from search requests, to location information (on Android devices or using apps like Google Search on iPhone), to browsing history. All of this helps it to provide better services, which is a plus for us, but it's all in aid of the way they actually make their money, by providing advertising with higher click through rates because it can better predict what ads we will click on, or by selling this sort of information on to interested third parties.

Facebook is the same. Their entire business model is based on collecting information about us, our social links, the things we talk about, all so it can sell this data to companies that want to better target us with advertising and offers.

These companies, and many others, are hooking into our online habits as much as possible in order to build more and more comprehensive profiles of who we are. If you use a program such as the Ghostery browser plug-in, you can see the sheer number of third party scripts that run on most of your web pages. As a simple example, I saw 8 different ones when I went to cnn.com. What this means is that, even if you don't use Google or Facebook, they have scripts on many of the web pages you visit which track information about what you do. This is useful data even if they don't know who you are, but thanks to the many different sources of information available to them, they can often link different sources of data together to figure out who someone is (this link gives a simple example of the sort of things that are possible).


Data collecting in the real world


Things don't stop with the online world. There is plenty of data collection occurring in the real world. The obvious examples are credit cards and loyalty cards, all of which collect your purchasing information to sell on. But this isn't done in isolation of the virtual world. Companies are combining all of this information, both virtual world and real world, to build a more complete profile of your interests and purchasing habits.

For example, Facebook has a partnership with Datalogix where your real word purchases in brick and mortar stores are collected (through the credit and loyalty cards), and then compared against the ads that you were shown on Facebook. This means that even if you don't click on a single banner ad, they can still track whether or not you ended up buying the products shown to you, i.e. they can still tell if the advertising was effective!

A company in Perth known as Inhouse Insights has been deploying technology that picks up the MAC address on your mobile phone when you enter and leave stores in order to track how long people spend in stores to help gauge the effectiveness of sales and so on. I don't know how many other companies are exploring similar avenues, but I'm sure these guys aren't the only ones.


The scary present/future


As if all of these forms of tracking and data collection weren't enough, it's the next steps by Google (and I'm sure other companies will follow) that really take it to the next level.

Privacy concerns have already been raised surrounding Google Glass. Here we have a set of glasses with an integrated video camera and a connection to Google's servers. It's not clear at this point exactly what information Google will be siphoning through these things, but the possibilities are worrying. Sure, we can already take fairly discreet photos and video if we want with cell phones and mini cameras, but these are limited in impact and isolated. Think of society if you have thousands or millions or people walking around with cameras and microphones strapped to their heads. You can usually tell when someone is using their phone to take a picture, but this is not the case with Google Glass. People will be wearing them all the time and we will stop noticing them, yet your voice and picture could be getting recorded at any time.

Now, imagine if Google decides to start capturing data of where the user is at any time and what they are seeing. Not only do they collect lots of useful data about the user, but also about the people they are looking at, without their consent or knowledge. Assuming that the glasses are intended to recognize people that the user knows in order to give useful contextual information to the user, this means that they will also be providing Google with useful information about people around the user. 

And then comes the Google autonomous cars. These cars are just being trialled on roads in Nevada, Florida, and California at the moment, but this will of course expand in the future, like Google Glass, once they become an actual product. But, even now, there is a fleet of these vehicles driving around, slurping up data. The sophisticated sensors on these cars collect many different kinds of data, and again they are connected to Google's servers. So, again like with the glasses, imagine when there are thousands or millions of these cars driving around, collecting data about the drivers, about what the cars see around them, including recognizing other cars and pedestrians. Concerns have rightfully been raised about the privacy violations that this technology can cause.

Some people like to think that Google is a company interested in doing good, and making the world a better place. This may in fact be true, but even if so, it doesn't negate the fact that Google is a publicly traded, for-profit company that primarily generates revenue from serving ads. This will always give it a strong incentive to violate privacy and sell data. Google has a long history of being quite secretive and protective of its own data and information, but showing very little restraint when faced with opportunities to collect other people's information. The collection of wifi data from homes and businesses by the Google Street View cars is one such example amongst many. And their blatant hypocrisy leaves you worrying just how likely they are to ever reign themselves in and not exploit every chance at collecting data on people in the future.


The surveillance state


So, in the end, we now have private companies collection information about us that governments would dream of having. And it's all just to sell us shit. All of this loss of privacy is not to make us safer or to catch criminals or anything noble like that. It's so companies like Google can serve us relevant ads so we buy more crap from their customers, the companies that pay for the ads. Sure, we get some benefit from this, such as more relevant search results, but the two don't have to be connected. It should be possible to collect data and only use it for benevolent reasons without selling it off or trying to manipulate the users and their spending habits. But the primary purpose of publicly traded companies is to maximize returns to their shareholders, so moral and ethical behaviour is generally going to fall by the wayside, which is exactly what we're seeing.

And now, governments don't need to go to the trouble to try and collect private information about us. They just request companies like Google to hand it over to them. Or they can look at purchasing data from data collection companies.

It seems kind of pathetic that in the end our privacy will disappear not because of an oppressive police state, but so some rich assholes in Silicon Valley can make money serving us ads for shoes.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Support Our Troops?

We frequently hear the catchcry "support our troops!", and it's considered almost a self evident truth that we should support the soldiers in our military, regardless of any disagreement we might have with larger scale military policies of our country. People talk about the brave soldiers who sign up and put their lives on the line to protect us, and how we should respect the sacrifices they make for us to be safe and free. To most people it seems that it's almost considered treasonous to be anything but fully supportive of the troops.

In this blog post I want to argue that this attitude does a disservice to all of us, including the soldiers themselves. I want to put forward the argument that blind support of soldiers without holding them accountable as part of the larger scale military apparatus of which they are part is both insulting to them, and to all of the people who have given their lives in the past.

Heroes


There is a long history of considering certain people as heroes, certain occupations in our society as heroic. We will sing praises to the bravery of people such as firefighters, police officers, and of course soldiers. We recognize that while most of us have fairly safe jobs, some people choose careers that put their lives in genuine danger, and that they deserve extra respect as a result of this. Sometimes we will single out a particular person who does something especially brave, and call them a hero.

It is no surprise why we do this. We all have an inbuilt sense of self preservation, but society often needs people to take personal risks for the benefit of others, so pretty much all human cultures have developed various mechanisms, rituals, and so on surrounding bravery, honor, doing your duty for the country/tribe/group, and making heroic sacrifices.

Soldiers are a very interesting case that stands apart from all of the others. On one hand, they are the ones who often have to take the greatest risks, but on the other hand, they are the ones who have a purpose solely focused on destruction and killing. While a firefighter is tasked with saving lives and stopping property damage, and a police officer is focused on keeping peace and only resorting to violence when necessary, the very purpose of a soldier is the projection of force, of killing other human beings and destruction of enemy infrastructure.

While it is true that the military can often be involved in 'peacekeeping' missions or tasked with rebuilding things, the former is really just making a visible threat of violence, while the latter is clearly a secondary use of a large number of able bodied people and equipment, and more cynically, good public relations. If the primary purpose of the military was construction and rebuilding, then clearly their primary tools would not be rifles, tanks and battleships.

So we always need to keep in the back of our minds that despite any particular acts of bravery and courage performed by individual soldiers, we have given these people the power to kill other humans, and they are part of an organization that sometimes brings them to justice when that power is abused, but also quite often does not, and so we need to hold them to a very high standard. And to do that we need a culture where soldiers can be freely criticized when they don't meet that high standard, rather than the usual, "oh, that was just a few bad apples, all the rest of the soldiers are shining examples of perfect morality, we promise".

Volunteers


One reason behind the respect paid to soldiers is the long history of conscription. In a society where people are forced to fight and risk their lives, basically a form of slavery, it's not surprising that we would find ways to make this seem more positive. By mixing in concepts like honor and duty, and having parades and public holidays and all sorts of ways to 'reward' veterans, we can take the sting out of being forced to go and kill people and possibly get killed.

The situation is a bit different when people are volunteering for this role, though. There may still be plenty of bravery and courage involved in what soldiers do, but the fact that they're freely choosing to put themselves in that position should not be ignored. While I'm sure that many soldiers have noble ideas of duty to their country and protecting their loved ones, the fact is that many people volunteer for much more mundane, sometimes even selfish reasons.

It is no accident that serving in the military has always been the province of young, testosterone-fueled males. As much as we try to become a more civilized society and as much as violence is decreasing in our society, we can't change the tendencies towards conflict and fighting that have evolved in humans due to their usefulness over most of our history. Many young people, particularly males, seek action and adventure, and freely admit that this is a large factor in joining the military. This doesn't make them bad people, by any means, but it does mean that we should be cautious about blanket support of people who choose to go seek action and adventure and kill people.

Then there are people who want to travel, or simply who want a job. In a small town with high unemployment, there may not be much local work available, but any young person can sign up for military service (though, of course, they may not be accepted).

And finally, we can't ignore the people who actually enjoy fighting and violence, and have very few avenues to legally engage in those activities. Just as arsonists can be drawn to fire fighting and people who enjoy holding power over others can be drawn to the police force, it should come as no surprise that people who enjoy violence will be drawn to the military.

The point of all of this is not to defame soldiers and imply that they're all doing what they do for bad reasons, but just to make it clear that the old days of people being forced to fight for their country have passed, and in this day and age we should not just blindly support anyone who volunteers to go and kill people. They might have good reasons for wanting to do it, but we are right to question those motives and not just assume that they are always positive.

More Than Dumb Grunts


When we're not fighting anyone, or when we're fighting a popular war, the issue of supporting the troops is much simpler. Everyone is generally happy to do it. It's when we're arguably doing the wrong thing that the question comes up. If you think that the US (and it's allies, like Australia) had no business invading Iraq and Afghanistan; if you think people should be held accountable for the thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed in these invasions/occupations and simply written off as 'collateral damage'; if you think the widespread sexual assault of female cadets and subsequent cover-ups and culture of silence at our military academies is unacceptable; then the question has to be asked how much soldiers should be held responsible for these things.

Often (though not always), when individual soldiers can be found to be committing crimes, they are held accountable. But what about the larger scale misconduct, such as fighting illegal wars? How much are other soldiers complicit in these things through their silence; through not taking reasonable actions to bring about change; though voluntarily re-enlisting and perpetuating the problem? How much should we continue to support them, and how much should we hold them partially accountable for helping to keep these things happening?

The way I see it, we can either consider soldiers to be nothing more than dumb grunts, brainwashed into obeying orders without question, and not capable of seeing the bigger picture. Or we can see them as intelligent individuals who can make moral judgements, and in which case, who have a responsibility to make the hard calls rather than just going with the flow. When your job is killing people, going with the flow should not be acceptable. 

I'd like to think that our soldiers aren't just dumb grunts, and so I think we do them a disservice to treat them that way, which we do when we just blindly support them and not hold them accountable for the apparatus they are a part of.

The real heroes are the soldiers who speak up despite a culture of silence when they know of illegal activities done by other soldiers. The real heroes speak up when they think the higher level military objectives are wrong and innocent people are being killed as a result of it. And the real heroes don't keep volunteering to help their country continue to do the wrong thing, even if that means they have to leave their friends behind when their tour is up. Real heroism is making the hard choices. I don't pretend for a moment that I have the strength of character to be that kind of person if I was in the military. But I don't ask my country to give me a gun and let me go kill people, so I don't need to be. For those that do ask, I think we need to hold them to a higher standard, and make words like 'honor', 'duty', and 'hero' actually mean something.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Making Public Holidays More Inclusive

As we head towards Easter and the two public holidays that coincide with it, it makes me think about the changing demographics in Australia in recent decades, and whether we're getting closer to the time when we need to rethink our religious public holidays.

Australia has no official religion and protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion in its constitution. This means that no Australian should be forced into any particular religious practices or discriminated against on the basis of their religion, or lack thereof.

Given that Australia has been an overwhelmingly Christian nation until recent decades, it's not at all surprising that we have several public holidays based around Christian religious events. At the present time, Christians still make up around 60% of the population, with about 30% being non-religious, so there hasn't been a strong push towards changing this. Non-religious Australians have a history of being fairly easy going when it comes to issues like these, so most of the push for removing religious public holidays would come from people of non-Christian faiths, who are still a very small minority.

Why change things when the majority is happy with the status quo? There are a few reasons:
  • The majority will continue to shrink over time and will eventually no longer be the majority. You could wait until then, but why cling to things desperately once you can see what the future will hold. Why not embrace them sooner?
  • Having public holidays based around holy days for one specific religion makes our constitution a lie. We can't honestly claim to have freedom of religion and no favoured religion as long as we treat one differently to all of the others. The number of practitioners should be irrelevant. Either we have an official religion or we don't, but we shouldn't be hypocrites.
  • We have our fair share of racial problems in Australia, particularly with the poor treatment of minorities, many of whom practice non-Christian religions. By giving Christianity a favoured status we contribute to this problem and make it worse.
  • If non-Christians are quite able to get by in Australia without having their holy days as public holidays, then surely Christians can manage to do the same.
I think replacing Christmas Day as a public holiday would probably not be necessary. This day has taken on so much secular meaning and built up secular traditions that it can be fairly considered a cultural day, not just one for Christians. It helps that a lot of the Christmas traditions have pagan rather than Christian origins, but in the end, the point is that most people enjoy Christmas trees, giving presents, Santa Claus, etc without associating this with religion.

Good Friday and Easter Sunday are a different matter. Although we have the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, and general excessive consumption of chocolate, I'm not sure that this is widely practiced by non-Christians, though perhaps this is changing and becoming more widespread, in the same way that Halloween is slowly becoming a thing in Australia, and no longer just an American holiday. So there might be an argument for keeping Easter Sunday, but I think Good Friday definitely has to go. It is absolutely a Christian specific holiday and really has no business being a public holiday.

So what should we do instead?

There are a lot of options. Western Australia should probably have a Mining Day public holiday! Northern Territory needs a Why The Hell Am I Still Living Here Day.

I think the best options would be to make Mothers Day and Fathers Day public holidays. Everyone can relate to them, and having public holidays based around bringing families together seems like a good idea in this age of ever increasing busyness.

What public holidays would you pick?




Sunday, March 24, 2013

Free Will and Groundhog Day

The question of whether or not free will really exists has been around for a long time, but it seems as though it's being brought up a lot more in recent times as people turn away from religious explanations for things (and thus are not satisfied by invented concepts such as souls to answer the question), and because technologies such as fMRI scanners are allowing us to probe the behaviour of the human mind in ways never before possible, and in ways that call in to question the assumed relationship between conscious decisions and actions.

I think everyone is naturally averse to the concept that free will doesn't actually exist. I've read enough on the subject and thought about it enough to be satisfied that it is, in fact, an illusion, and that in most cases it doesn't really change at all our day to day lives. There are certainly big issues like the punishment of criminals that become very interesting in light of this, but at the end of the day, we mostly have no choice but to behave as though we have free will whether or not we really do, because (ironically?) we cannot do anything else!

I don't really want to discuss the arguments for free will being an illusion here, and would simply refer people to the excellent short book by Sam Harris on the topic. There are many other books I could suggest, but this is a concise, well written book that gives a modern discussion of the issue. Or you could watch a talk given by Harris for a summary of his arguments:


What I want to talk about here is the fact that I think people accept free will being an illusion far more than they realize. And what made me appreciate this was a recent rewatching of Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day Makes Sense To Us


Some of the funniest parts of Groundhog Day are when Phil makes use of his ability to relive the same day to figure out how to achieve goals via trial and error. We see him try out a line, watch how it is received, and then modify it the next day. Or he will gain some information and then reuse that information to give a better response the next day:


All very scientific, but what is so striking about these scenes is how the repetition of everyone else's behaviour is so easily accepted by us, the viewers. We don't find it jarring that if Phil performs the same actions each day, the behaviour of everyone else is completely predictable! This is just a movie, of course, but if people suddenly started flying around the room in it, we would be pulled out of the narrative immediately. The fact is, we intuitively expect other people to be predictable to some degree, and would in fact find it far more unusual if this wasn't the case.

If the movie actually showed people behaving a little different each day, completely independent of Phil's actions, we would probably find it confusing. We would want an explanation. I think we intuitively understand that people change over time, being affected and growing as a result of our experiences, but if you could take the clone of a person and run them through absolutely identical life experiences, if you presented them with the same choice at the same point in time, they would make the same decision.

Rationalizing Behaviour With Outside Influences


We are also very prone to looking for reasons for other people's behaviour. When someone commits a crime, we ask, "what made him do it?". We will reference their childhood and upbringing, pressure from their peers, and so on. We find it baffling if someone appears to have committed a crime 'for no reason'. 

If you meet someone with a phobia, or with any particular hang up that they can't properly rationalize, it's not uncommon for them to refer to something in their past, an incident in their childhood. Hell, some people will even fall back on their astrological sign: "He's like that because he's a Leo". How could such a sentence even make sense if people weren't predictable?

But this is the exact opposite of free will. The more we think people should be predictable based on their past, the less room we leave for free will. Where is the space for free will to act if everything is the sum of our past?

I think that, in the end, people are actually fairly comfortable with the notion that other people are predictable, that, in effect, other people don't have free will. It's only when applied to ourselves that we so strongly reject the idea, because we feel that we have it. But maybe we simply have no choice but to feel that way. Maybe it's just an illusion that is necessary for our brains to function correctly, and there is simply no way we can imagine how it must be to not have free will, in the same way that we can't see through an optical illusion even when we know it's an illusion.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Thoughts on taxing the rich

There is constant debate about the optimum levels of taxation for different individuals and companies. Everyone has a different opinion about what activities the government should and shouldn't spend money on, but most people tend to agree that very wealthy people should probably give back more to the system that they have disproportionately benefited from. To any rich person who thinks that the legal framework; patent, copyright and trademark laws; physical infrastructure; military and police who keep peace and order; and so on, have nothing to do with their wealth and ability to create more of it, I would ask that person to go restart their life in, say, the New Guinea highlands and then tell me how rich and wealthy they think they would get in a tribal society that calculates wealth by the number of pigs that you own (these groups really still exist, by the way).

Wealthy people/companies will often state that higher taxes stifle their ability to innovate, and therefore lower taxes are better for everyone. There is no doubt some degree of truth to this, and it's a question of finding the optimum levels of taxation that encourage innovation but do not contribute to unreasonable wealth inequality and allow some people to take unfair advantage of society. And we should also keep in mind that rich people, on average, have much more ability to influence laws and political policies, so in general we should probably err on the side of being 'unfair' to rich people, knowing that their own unfair advantages in social influence will generally push laws back in the other direction to some degree no matter what we choose.

Innovation


One thing that I think is worth pointing out about the innovation argument is a simple fact that I've heard many, many times: Creative, passionate people would probably still do what they do even if they didn't make lots of money doing it.

This, I think, is a quite simple and profound observation. Some people who are passionate about what they do and care about being creative and innovative will get lucky and make good money off of that passion. They will make something that others want to pay a lot of money for, and they will get quite wealthy as a result. Generally a certain amount of talent and perseverance is necessary for this, but generally a lot of luck is also involved. In the games industry, I think of people like Doom programmer John Carmack or the creator of Minecraft, Markus Persson. Both are people who are very passionate, smart, and talented, and have made millions of dollars from their creative endeavours, but both were also quite lucky to be at the right place at the right time when they launched their products.

Would John Carmack and Markus Persson have stopped programming games and done something else if they didn't make millions though? I would bet that as long as they were able to pay the bills, they would have kept doing what they were doing. And this is true for the millions of struggling artists, writers, musicians, games developers, scientists, and everyone else who is passionate about creating things.

So, when we tax the very rich, are we really stopping innovation? Obviously, we would like the John Carmacks and Markus Perssons of the world to get some degree of reward for what they do, even if it's just for the selfish reason that they will be in a position to keep on innovating, and we all benefit from that. But if you reduce the monetary incentives to some degree, the people you tend to discourage are not these guys, but rather the ones who are in it purely for the money. Again, in the gaming world, I think of people like Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, or Zynga CEO Mark Pincus.

If we reduce the ability to become super rich by having higher taxes on the wealthy, and this has an end result that we keep people like John Carmack and Markus Persson, but soulless money hounds like Bobby Kotick and Mark Pincus take off to find easy money somewhere else, would that be a bad thing for anyone other than Kotick and Pincus?


High Profits


Another big argument of the very wealthy is that free markets encourage competition, which in turn results in innovation. Successful companies are supposedly good at innovating and finding ways to cut costs, and this is often given as a reason why private industry is more efficient than government.

If this is true, then what does it mean when a company posts really large profits? I won't bother defining exactly what 'really large' is here, since it's not really the point, but let's say that if you look at a company's overall revenue and then look at its profit after expenses, then there is some percentage value we could define where we can say that if company X earned a profit greater than Y% of its total revenue, then it's making a large profit.

If a company makes a large profit, it seems to me that it is likely due to one of two reasons:
  • They've just made some major innovation which allows them to provide a good or service that there is no other competition for yet.
  • The market is inefficient in some way which has stopped the company from having any real competition.
Think about that second case. In a true, properly working free market, companies generally shouldn't be able to have large profit margins because there should be competing companies offering the same goods and/or services cheaper. If you're gouging your customers, someone else should step in and offer the same or better service at a lower price and take your customers. The exception to this is the first case, where you've just done something that the competition has not caught up with yet.

So, when the first case is not occurring and a company reports large profits, it basically means that they are gouging their customers in one way or another. Maybe they have a monopoly and can charge whatever they want, or there are a small number of competitors who all have an 'understanding' not to compete on price, or barriers to entry make it hard for new competition to enter the market, or some other explanation. But the very fact that the company can afford to charge customers so much more than what is necessary to break even indicates that the free market is not working in this case.

One possible solution here would be to make taxes on company profits have a very large jump once profit exceeds a certain proportion of revenue. I don't know how practical this would actually be to enforce, but it seems to me that the results would be beneficial. You would still be incentivising companies to be efficient, but it would reduce the tendency to cut corners on their products, reduce salary and benefits of their workers, and unnecessarily send jobs offshore, since this extra profit would not make its way into the pockets of the key stakeholders of the company.

You would still need to find a way to allow exceptions for large profits due to genuine innovation, and you'd also have to find a way to tell the difference between necessary expenses of a company and reasonable salaries, and overblown salaries and giant bonuses, otherwise a company could claim a lower profit margin by simply increasing the salaries of the top executives, and you wouldn't have solved the problem.

I'm sure there are various issues with these ideas, but I think they create interesting possibilities.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What would you do if money were no object?

Money!
Make bad life choices!

I saw this video posted on Facebook recently, which contains a recording of British philosopher and writer Alan Watts discussing how to figure out what to do in life in order to be happy. You may have seen it too:

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/10/10/if-money-were-no-object-alan-watts/


The basic premise of the discussion is simple enough: Think about what you would most like to do if money were no object, if money didn't matter, and then do that thing. Why spend your life doing things you don't want to do in order to make money, just so you can keep on doing what you don't want to do?

Sounds obvious, maybe even profound, right? Well, I thought so at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's actually really bad advice. Let me explain.

Bad Hypotheticals


The problem with this hypothetical is quite simple: finding happiness in life is a complex multivariable problem, a balancing of many different competing wants and needs, and ignoring any one of these may have minor value as a thought experiment, but it's dangerous to actually make life decisions on this basis.

Think about the different aspects of life that you could hypothetically ignore and how it would change what you would choose to do:
  • What if money didn't matter?
  • What if health and fitness didn't matter?
  • What if morality didn't matter?
  • What if feeling fulfilled in the long term didn't matter?
  • What if friends and family didn't matter?
The problem is, all of these things, and many more, do matter. You can't just ignore one of them and think the results will be sensible. I mean, if health and fitness didn't matter, I could save about 15-20 hours a week on doing exercise and eat all manner of awesome shitty food. But would I actually go and do this? Of course not, it would be a terrible idea, or at least one that came with many undesirable consequences. My high blood pressure would get much worse, and I'd probably take about 20 years off my life. Or maybe I'd have a stroke and get to live the remainder of my life with that.

Actions and Consequences


Say you took the 'money is no object' hypothetical, and decided that you wanted to do something that almost certainly paid you poorly, but you did it anyway because it makes you happy. Now, say you also want to have children. Should those children also have to live with your decision and suffer an impoverished upbringing? We make lots of decisions in life, and many come with responsibilities and additional consequences, whether we like it or not. Ignoring these consequences and the impact they have on others, all so you can be happy, would be a rather selfish way to live your life.

Now, you might say that I'm reading into this too much, and that the hypothetical is useful as a meditative exercise, something to help gain focus. I agree completely with this, but to make this work is a two step process. First, think about what you would do if money was no object. Secondly, think if there is a way to realize that dream given that money does matter, without creating unwanted consequences. If the answer is no, then don't do it. The same could be done for all the other hypotheticals listed above. Use them as a meditative device, but if you can't find an answer that includes all of them, and any other important factors in your life, the option is a bad one and you should discard it.

Unknown Timespans


Think about what you would do if you only had one day to live. What wouldn't you do? Would you bother with eating well, would you go to work? Would you care about a long term savings plan?

What if you had a month to live? There are probably now some things that you would care about that wouldn't factor in with a single day. Meeting up with old friends, travelling to places you always wanted to go. But you probably still wouldn't care about work or health and fitness.

What if you had a year? Things like diet and exercise might start to be important again in this timespan, as would some form of income. But you probably still wouldn't be worried about your superannuation or keeping your salt and cholesterol intake low. You wouldn't care about high blood pressure or diabetes, but you'd care about getting hit by a passing car.

But in the end, we don't know how long we're going to live. Any of the above may actually be true for any of us, but most of us will have decades ahead of us. So as interesting and focusing as the above hypotheticals might be, we generally have to plan as though we will live for several decades.

However, on the flip side, we also need to balance this against any major regrets we would have if our lives were suddenly cut short. You don't want to regret shortsighted decisions if you actually live for a long time, but you also don't want to live entirely on the assumption that you've got many decades ahead, and then feel massive regret and disappointment if your life is unfortunately cut short and you miss out on all the things you planned to do 'one day'. This is all about balance, and there are no easy answers.

The same is true for money, health, morals, friends and family, and every other aspect that makes life so complicated and interesting. You can't make good decisions if you pretend that any of these things is unimportant, but you also can't make good decisions if you focused on any of them and pretended it was the most important thing either.

Hypotheticals are fun and can be mind expanding, but life is complicated, and so we shouldn't be tempted to fall for simple looking answers that try to hide all of this complexity. Sometimes I feel envy for people who are so passionate about just one thing, since life seems so simple for them. But at the same time, I feel sorry for them, as I think of all of the other amazing things they miss out on due to their intense focus and obsession. I'm not sure what the right answer is, and it's clearly going to be different for everyone, but chances are, it's going to be complicated. And that's okay.