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.


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?

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:

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.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tomb Raider reboot

Diana and I just finished playing the new Tomb Raider reboot, and we enjoyed it far more than we expected. I think it's worth posting a bit about it for this reason.


We went in to Tomb Raider without high expectations. I've never thought particularly highly of any of the previous games, and I tend to think that the Uncharted series mostly took the crown for this genre. However, having met some of the developers at Crystal Dynamics a few years ago and hearing about their plans for the game (it was in early preproduction at that time), I was certainly interested to see how well they were able to realize their vision.

I'd avoided reading anything substantial on the game, and I hadn't really planned to play it, expecting to just read some reviews and be satisfied with that. However, after coming down with a cold just before the weekend and seeing that the game was out already, we decided that there were worse ways to spend a couple of days, and so we gave it a go.

The concept of a gritty reboot of the rather tonally questionable series sounded like a good idea to me. It seems to be working for every other reboot these days, and I certainly wasn't going to go near a Tomb Raider game otherwise! I could see that there was actually some potential if they did it right.

Good borrowing

Overall we both enjoyed the game a lot. I find it very interesting because it's hard to pin down exactly what was good about it. There was no real single idea that was new or innovative in its own right, yet somehow the game as a whole worked really well. I think it is an example of a game that takes lots of good ideas from other games and combines them in just the right way. I would compare this to Sleeping Dogs, another game that does nothing new, but combines lots of good things well. 

I don't see this as a negative statement on the game or its developers. Genuinely new gameplay mechanics and level design ideas are pretty rare, and most of the time developers are taking existing ideas and just refining them. Sequels are quite often just polishing of ideas from the previous game, so a game that takes lots of ideas with potential from various other games and refines them all into a single experience is a good thing.


If I had to compare Tomb Raider to other games, I think Uncharted is clearly the obvious one, but the level design is strongly reminiscent of Arkham Asylum. This is due to the mechanic that both games share of having areas of levels that are initially inaccessible, but as new equipment is unlocked you can go back and access these areas. This has been done by several other games too, and I think it's a clever way to make a mostly linear game feel much less so.

The narrative of Tomb Raider is definitely linear. You move through a fairly interesting and well paced story. The new equipment mechanic allows it to feel less linear, though there are only a couple of major places in the game where you will revisit if your strictly follow the story. However, you have the freedom to go back to any previous section at any time by finding the nearest fast travel campsite, which will then let you instantly travel to any other discovered campsites on the island. This allows you to search for the various collectibles in previous sections or open up areas you couldn't access before (generally to gain access to collectibles).


One of the big strengths of the game is that it knows not to make any sections drag on for too long. Just like Uncharted, you will find yourself in sections where you are climbing to reach a destination; fighting sections; puzzle areas; cinematic sections where you're running/jumping/sliding either away from or towards the camera as things around you crumble/explode. Unlike Uncharted, these sections are usually kept quite short, so you never get bored or get forced to replay an overly large amount.

The optional tombs are a good example. You find several tombs across the island, and if you choose to complete them you will get a nice loot/xp reward. The tombs themselves are quite short, typically centered around a single physics puzzle, usually with a moderately simple but still satisfying solution. Most games would probably be unable to resist stringing half a dozen of these puzzles together in each tomb, but I think the designers knew that puzzles can be frustrating if you can't solve them, so limiting each tomb to a single one will stop the game experience from getting derailed for struggling players.

As the game progresses, items are unlocked such as a pick that allows you to climb up certain rock faces, rope arrows that allow you to pull distant objects or set up a zip line between points, and a simple shotgun that allows you to blow open certain blocked passages. As you master each of these, the game will start mixing them together more frequently, which helps increase the difficulty without changing the mechanics.

One of the best things I can say about this game is that it doesn't screw up the gameplay near the end. Too many games introduce boss fights that require gameplay that is mostly unrelated to the rest of the game, or just spam you with lots of overly hard enemies, such as taking some of their minibosses from earlier in the game and hitting you with two or three at a time. This has always struck me as lazy design. A good game will build up to a finale by testing the skills you've been developing throughout the game, and the final fight will bring together all of those skills. Tomb Raider does this very will, with the lead up to the finale requiring a rapid mixture of all of the navigation and fighting skills you've been developing.


Tomb Raider has multiple upgrade systems that help keep the game feeling fresh. Unlike games such as Call of Duty where variety is gained by having lots of different weapons appear throughout the game, but limiting the number the player can carry, Tomb Raider has a small array of weapons, all of which are carried by the player once unlocked. To keep it interesting, there is a system of upgrades available for each weapon. Generic salvage can be picked up throughout the game, and this can be spent upgrading weapons as the player sees fit. 

Separate to this is a character levelling system fuelled by experience points that are gained by killing enemies or finding collectibles. As the player levels they are given skill points which can be applied based on the player's gameplay style. You will end up unlocking most of these by the end of the game, but it's still nice to have some control over the order of the unlocks, and also fits with the overall character arc.


Enemy behaviour is interesting and well executed. The standard patrolling/searching/fighting states are here, and variety is mostly achieved through different classes of enemy. Enemies have substantially different behaviours based on weapons, so you get the melee charging types, the slowly advancing shotgun guys, ones with assault rifles that tend to favour moving from cover to cover, long distance archers, and so on. Enemies will use fire bombs or grenades to flush you out of cover, and cover can often be destroyed by both you and AI using fire or grenades.

I like the fact that enemies do not take an unreasonable number of hits to go down, though this is affected by whether they have body armour or helmets. There is also the ability to temporarily incapacitate by shooting in the legs, which gives the chance to close in for a finishing move. There is a simple but effective dodge/counter system that stops close range from being frustrating without implementing a full melee system which is clearly not the focus of the combat here. 

Once again, there is nothing particularly new here, but it's all well done, with the combat being nicely balanced so that it never gets frustrating but also still leaves you feeling satisfied when you clear out an area. Some people will probably find it too easy, but I dislike games where I have to play action bubbles repeatedly to beat them, and in Tomb Raider I found that I usually beat a section with one or two tries. Note that this was on normal difficulty.


I've only touched on certain aspects of the game here, not even dealing with things such as graphics and sound (both of which are very good). I hope I've managed to capture some of the reasons why this game stood out for me as a particularly good example of a how to make a game right in a well established genre.

Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant?

This is just a short post about something that bothers me about word usage in relation to carbon dioxide. I've noticed more and more sources referring to it as a pollutant. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency considers it a pollutant, and plenty of other credible sources such as National Geographic use this term too. So why do I think it's a problem?

Labels can be very powerful. They can stifle discussion and make it very hard for issues to be debated clearly. This is because many words are not neutral in tone, but rather come with pejorative or ameliorative connotations that sway thinking about the things they are attached to. A great example of this is the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. By labelling something as pro-life, you make it very hard to argue against it without constantly having to deal with the implication that if you disagree, you are against life itself. We can see the same trick when referring to someone as, say, a climate change denier or a holocaust denier. The use of the term denier seems to be accurate and probably justified in these cases, but there is no doubt that it's a pejorative and that it sets the tone of discussion, which would make it much easier to dismiss the denier if he actually had some valid arguments.

While labels can affect the tone of discourse, they can also become dangerous when the meanings behind that label are used to justify policies and actions. For example, the term piracy for copyright infringement has been used to justify draconian measures and confuse people as to the legality of these measures. It is much easier to trick people by saying piracy is stealing than the more obviously untrue copyright infringement is stealing. It is like labelling speeding as murder and then advocating harsher punishments to stop murderers!

We've also seen this trick used recently in the US with the war on drugs and the war on terror. By incorrectly labelling something as a war, there is the real danger that laws regarding wartime policies can get invoked and abused. A rhetorical device becomes a legal justification.

So back to carbon dioxide and the term pollutant. I think this is a bad term because, as far as I'm aware, a pollutant is always a substance that is undesirable. A substance where, if you could, you would reduce it to zero in a given situation. Fecal matter would be a pollutant in drinking water because the desired amount is zero. CFCs in the atmosphere are a pollutant for this same reason. But carbon dioxide is of course not like this. There is currently an excess of it in the atmosphere above the desirable levels, but the desirable level is not zero. We would never want zero carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the way we would desire zero levels of actual pollutants.

As a comparison, when a town becomes flooded from storms, no one ever, ever, complains about water pollution (as in the water itself being pollution). There is absolutely a problem of excess water at that point in time that needs to be reduced, but to call it a pollutant would just be to confuse, not clarify.

So let's work on dealing with the real problem of excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere without ruining the meaning of another word through overly broad and incorrect application. Otherwise my head will literally explode!