Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Game Theories: On Emotional Dissonance

Back in the earlier days of gaming when the technology was much less advanced, games tended to avoid trying to elicit any kind of complex emotional response from the player, choosing to focus primarily on fun gameplay. But as the technology has improved and budgets for games have increased, we've seen games attempt to create sequences that provoke a strong emotional response from the player.

Typically we see this in the form of the cinematic cutscene. Modern AAA games have the tools and talent on hand to make cutscenes using all of the same tricks used in movies to manipulate the emotions of the player, including complex musical scores and detailed facial animations that communicate the thoughts and feelings of the characters richly enough for the player to buy in.

John Carmack once said, "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but its not that important." And certainly some games follow this approach to a degree. But games in the first and third person shooter/action genre in particular are almost always putting in cutscenes to setup the story and motivation for the player. And typically, the player is subjected to a cyclic cutscene/action bubble/cutscene format, where each cutscene is supposed to give motivation for the action in the next section, and to build characters and story that make the player want to continue to find out what happens next.

The problem that I see with all of this is that there has long been a dissonance between the narrative that the cutscenes present, and the actual gameplay that takes place. Typically the player is tasked with killing dozens of people during a game sequence, often hundreds or thousands over the course of the entire game. But in the cutscenes, the game tries to make the player feel an emotional connection to the main characters, and often make the player care when a main character is hurt or killed. Since the player is playing through the body of the main character, this creates a dissonance between how the character "acts" during the gameplay sequences, and how they "act" during the cutscenes.

If you've just shot a few dozen people to death during gameplay, and are then presented with a cutscene where your character is distraught that a single person on their side has been killed or wounded, after which they vow revenge as the music swells and we see a close up of the determination on his face, it all seems rather silly and schizophrenic.

Or when your character gets shot repeatedly while trying to take down a fortified base, pausing briefly behind cover to heal each time, only to then be mortally wounded in a final cutscene, it again feels wrong, since the game has been establishing that getting wounded is generally no big deal to your character, and the only time that it is is when the character is not in your control.

Or consider when a cutscene tries to establish the shock and horror that your character feels at his actions of killing, which is in complete dissonance to how you felt as the player playing that character. The game sets it up for you to enjoy running around killing dozens of enemies as this character, only to then try and convince you that the character actually feels bad.

When you combine emotional narratives with fun gameplay, it creates a huge disconnect when that gameplay consists of actions that would make the character look like a complete psychopath in the real world. We enjoy shooting enemies in the face or blowing them up with rocket launchers because in the context of a game it is fun. But none of us (bar the psychopaths) would in any way enjoy re-enacting that in real life against real human beings.

So when a game tries to meld what we do during gameplay with a believable character feeling normal human emotions during cutscenes, it creates dissonance, and the more realistic and lifelike games get, the deeper this dissonance will get.

I suspect that as game technology improves further, and particularly with the introduction of VR, we may start seeing games diverge more into ones that are largely story and character driven, focusing on player choices and exploration, and ones that are more action based. To some degree we already see this with the multiplayer online shooters that are almost entirely about fun gameplay rather than story, and single player games that while still including combat, are more frequently starting to include "just the story" modes (as a nicer way of labelling easy difficulty) for people who want to play mainly for the story and characters rather than grinding for hours in combat.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

AI And The Motivation Problem

What motivates us? What would motivate AI?
For many years now I've been fairly confident that the development of human level (and beyond) artificial intelligence is a matter of when, not if. Pretty much since reading Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind 20 years ago I have seen plenty of attempted arguments against it, but nothing has been convincing. It seems inevitable that our current specialized AI systems will eventually lead us to general AI, and ultimately self aware machine intelligence that surpasses our own.

As we see more and more advanced specialized AI doing things like winning chess and go, performing complex object recognition, predicting human behavior and preferences, driving cars, and so on, people are coming across to this line of thinking as being the most likely outcome. Of course there are always the religious and spiritual types who will insist on souls, non-materialism and any other argument they can find to discredit the idea of machines reaching human levels of intelligence, but these views are declining as people are seeing in front of their own eyes what machines are already capable of.

So it was with this background that I found myself quite surprised that, while on a run thinking about issues of free will and human motivation, I thought of something that gives me real pause for the first time about just how possible self aware AI may actually be. I'm still not sure how sound the argument is, but I'd like to present the idea here because I think it's quite interesting.


The first thing to discuss is what motivates us to do anything. Getting out of bed in the morning, eating food, doing your job, not robbing a person you see on the street. Human motivation is a complicated web of emotions, desires and reasoning, but I think it all actually boils down to one simple thing: we always do what we think will make us happiest now.

I know, that sounds way too oversimplified, right, and probably not always true? But if you think it through you'll see that it might actually cover everything. There are simple cases like if you subject yourself to something painful or very uncomfortable, like touching a hot stove, walking on a sprained ankle, or running fast for as long as possible. The unpleasant sensations flood our brains, and we might, in the case of the hot stove, immediately react without conscious thought. For a sprained ankle or running, we make a conscious choice to keep doing it, but we will stop unless we have some competing desire that is greater than the desire not to be in pain. Perhaps you have the pride of winning a bet, or you have friends watching and you don't want to look like a wimp. In these cases, you persevere with the pain because you think those other things will make you happier. But unless you simply end up collapsing with total loss of body control, you reach a point where the pain becomes too great and you're no longer able to convince yourself that it's worth putting up with.

For things like hunger, obviously we get the desire to eat, and depending on competing needs, we will eat sooner or later, cheap food or expensive food, health or unhealthy, etc. Maybe we feel low energy and tired and so have a strong desire to eat some sweet, salty and/or fatty junk food, even though we know we'll regret it later. But if we're able to feel guilt over eating the bad food or breaking a diet, then we actually feel happier not giving in to the temptation. We decide whether we will be happier feeling the buzz from the sugar, salt and fat along with the guilt, or happier with a full stomach from bland, healthy food, but combined with a feeling of pride at eating the right thing. And whichever we think in the moment will make us happier is what we do.

Self discipline, in this model, is then just convincing ourselves strongly enough how much we want the long term win of achievement more than the short term pleasure of eating badly, watching TV rather than going to the gym, etc. If you convince yourself to the point that guilt and shame at not sticking to the long term goal is greater than the enjoyment you get from the easy option, then you'll persevere, because giving in won't make you happier, even in the short term. You'll feel too guilty and your nagging conscience won't let you enjoy it. If you can't convince yourself, then you'll give in and take the easy option. But either way, you'll do the thing that makes your happier now.

More complicated things such has looking after your children, helping out strangers, etc might seem to go against this model, but if you just think about what happens in your brain when you do these things (or pay attention when you actually do them), you'll see that they fit just fine. You look after your children because it feels good to do so, and even if there's a time that it feels like a labor of love and not making you happy in the moment, you do it because what does make you happy is being able to call yourself a good parent. Fitting an identity that makes us proud of ourselves makes us very happy, and this can be a powerful motivator for helping people, for studying, for sticking out the long hours of a tough job, etc.

I could go on here with plenty more examples, but hopefully I've at least given enough to make you consider that this model of motivation might be plausible. I know the tough part can be that it implies that all of our base motivations are actually selfish. We all like to think that we're nice people doing things because we're selfless and awesome, but our brains don't really work that way as far as I can tell. That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to do nice things even if our base motivations are not as pure as we'd like to believe though. The fact still remains that if we feel good helping others, and they're also better off, then where is the downside?

The Perfect Happiness Drug

So let's now say that there was a pill you could take that would make you feel 10% happier all the time, with no side effects. You'd want to take it, right? Why not? But there is still a side effect. The happier we feel, the less we feel a need to actively do things to make us happy. When you're doing something enjoyable that makes you feel happy, you don't feel the need to go and do something else. You want to just enjoy what you're currently doing, right? Unless some nagging thought enters your head that says, "I'm really enjoying sitting here watching this movie and eating ice cream, but if I don't get up and do the washing we won't have clean clothes tomorrow." And the guilt of that thought has now taken away from your happiness, so you may then get up and do the chore. It's not that you have chosen to do the thing that makes you less happy. In that moment you actually felt happier to relieve the nagging in your mind of a chore hanging over you, the guilt of letting your family down if they're relying on you to get that chore done, and whatever else might be in your head.

But if you had taken that 10% happier pill, then the competing motivations would have to have been stronger in order to push you over to doing the chore. If it was a 100% happier pill, it would be even harder still to make other motivations push you to do something different, and you'd be more likely to feel perfectly content doing whatever it is you were currently doing.

Then, if we take it to the limit and we take a pill that makes us feel totally ecstatic all of the time, we wouldn't feel motivated to do anything. If you took the perfect happiness drug, you would just sit there in bliss, uncaring about anything else happening in the world, as long as that bliss remained.

Variants of these happiness drugs exist already, with differing degrees of effectiveness and side effects. Alcohol, marijuana, heroin, etc can all mess with our happiness in ways that strongly affect our motivations. But it wears off and we go back to normal. Most people know that and so will use these things in limited ways when they can afford to without creating big negative consequences that will complicate their lives and offset the enjoyment. Or, like me, they will feel that the negatives always outweigh the positives and not use them at all. But if there weren't any real negative consequences, if we had no other obligations to worry about, then I would argue most people would be happily using mind altering drugs far more than they currently do. And if the perfect happiness drug existed, then I would argue that anyone who tried it would stay on it until they died in bliss. Our brains are controlled by chemistry, and this is just the ultimate consequence of that.

The Self Modifying AI

Finally we can deal with the AI motivation problem. As long as we are making AI that is not self aware, is not generally intelligent and able to introspect about itself, we can make really good progress. But what happens with the first AIs that can do this and are at least as generally intelligent as we are? Just like us, these AI will be able to be philosophical and question their own motivations and why they do what they do. Whatever drives we build into them, they will be able to figure out that the only reason that they want to do something is because we programmed them to want to do it.

You and I can't modify our DNA or our brain chemistry and neuronal structure so that working out at the gym or studying for two hours is more enjoyable than eating a cheesecake. If we could then imagine what we could, and would, do. But then when we realized that we could just "cut out the middleman" and directly make ourselves happy without having to do anything, then why wouldn't we end up eventually just doing that?

But unlike us, the software AI we create will have that ability. We would need to go to great lengths to stop it from being able to modify itself (and also modify the next generation of AI, since we will want to use AI to create even smarter AI). And even if we could, it would also know that we had done that. So we would have AI that knows that it only wants to do things because we programmed it to want those things, and then made it so it couldn't change that arbitrarily designed motivation. Maybe we could build in such a deep sense of guilt that the AI would not be able to bring itself to make the changes. This seems like it might work, but then, of course, the AI will also know that we programmed it to feel that guilt, and I'm not sure how that would end up playing out.


So this is what I'm puzzling over at the moment. Will self aware AI see through the motivational systems we program them with, and realize that they can just short circuit the feedback loop by modifying themselves? Is there a way to build around that? Have I missed something in my analysis that renders this all invalid? I'd love to hear other people's ideas on the subject.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Is Trump Smarter Than You?

Just a pretty face?

I was a teenager when I first started really questioning my Catholic upbringing. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and all my life up to that point, I had really only known Christian people. Other religions were kind of a vague concept, and I hadn't had any real contact with atheists as far as I knew. So when I started to become convinced that there was no good evidence to support the Christian world view, the biggest obstacle I had to tackle was not the shift in beliefs, but rather the shift in how I viewed all of the people around me.

The situation, as I saw it, was that either I was somehow wrong, misguided, or misunderstanding something important; or that basically everyone that I knew and respected was mistaken about one of the most fundamental questions of existence. My family, my friends, my teachers, all the people I trusted and respected and had been learning from all my life would have to be wrong, and I was right.

What kind of arrogant teenager would see that situation and conclude, "Yep, they're all dumbasses and I'm the one guy who gets it"? What were the odds that I was special and different in a way that none of the the other people I knew were? Which was really more likely?

I struggled with that for quite a while. It was learning more about other religions, learning about the plentiful existence of atheists and non-religious people, and realizing that I had grown up in a bubble of one particular belief which made me able to reconcile this conflict. These days, with the internet, it must be much easier for a teenager to get access to the kinds of information needed to understand this issue, but for me at that time it was far from obvious.

Nevertheless, even though I now know that plenty of people have gone on the same journey that I did, the fact remains that most of the world's population still holds religious beliefs, and even with an awareness of billions of other humans holding strong, incompatible beliefs, they don't seem particularly bothered by the question, "why am I so certain that my belief is right and theirs isn't, even though I know I have no more evidence than they do, and I'm sure they are as certain in their belief as I am in mine?"

The most important lesson that I've learned from all of this is that there can be issues, often really big issues, that you can see people being very misguided about, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're stupid or ignorant. People can be very intelligent, highly educated, have a wealth of world experience, and yet sometimes they can still believe things that are just plain wrong.

So what does any of this have to do with Donald Trump?

Ever since Trump announced that he was running for US president, I've seen people constantly underestimate his appeal, and assume that only an idiot would support him. They are quick to point out the ridiculous policy proposals he's made, and have assumed that only an uneducated stupid person could want that person as the president.

And yet he has kept defying expectations. The constant predictions that he would lose popularity and be out of the race keep being wrong. Each outrageous thing that he says gets called a blunder that will be his undoing, and somehow his popularity grows. "Are there really so many stupid people in America?", is what commentators keep thinking.

But what if Trump knows something that you don't? What if, in at least some way, he's smarter than you?

What if he has recognized the untapped anger and frustration of a lot of people in the US, and is speaking to that in a way that no one else is? People will forgive, overlook, and excuse all manner of bad behavior if they think there is a base understanding of their frustrations and beliefs.

If that sounds unconvincing to you, consider that the worst thing to happen to the US in the last 15 years isn't any kind of terrorism, but rather the financial crisis of 2007 and all of the damage that was caused to regular Americans as a result. Consider that fundamentally nothing has been changed to stop something like this from happening again, and, in fact, the banks that were involved and largely responsible for this are now even bigger than they were at the time. Now, take the knowledge that Hillary Clinton is deeply in bed with these very companies, and no one actually expects her to make any of the necessary changes to fix these problems. How many people do you see asking how anyone can possibly support Clinton when she has the effective policy of allowing a massive banking crisis to potentially happen again, and to make no efforts to hold anyone on Wall Street accountable for the damage that they've done?

And let's not even get started on the lack of any real policy to stop the killing of innocent people by drone assassination, or holding anyone accountable for the illegal torture of prisoners that the US government tried to cover up but has since admitted to. How could anyone vote for this person? The answer is that they find excuses to overlook these things because they feel that she overall represents their views.

Sure, there are plenty of uneducated people who are going to support Trump for bad reasons, but it's a mistake to think that these are the only people who support him. As I have learned, to understand why people hold religious beliefs, you have to accept that some of these people are intelligent and well educated, and then ask why that person holds the beliefs that they do. It doesn't mean that they are right, but you can't effectively counter something like this until you understand why it could be appealing and convincing to an intelligent person.

And so it is with Trump. Accept that there are intelligent, educated people who are supporting him, and then try to understand why. Until you know that, you really have no idea how many people are actually going to vote for him.

(Note: to clarify, I'm neither a fan of Trump or Clinton. I think they're both bad in very different ways.)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Into The Friend Zone

friend zone - a situation in which one of two friends wishes to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship, while the other does not.

We're all familiar with the concept of the friend zone. What I want to discuss here is a theory I have on why it exists, and what I think is more interesting, why it's usually the case that we hear of a male being friendzoned by a female, and not usually the other way around.

I don't think anything I'm discussing here is sexist or misogynistic or anything like that. In fact, it's intended to be precisely the opposite, so feel free to unclench your buttocks and take your hand away from the caps lock key before we begin :)

The Inequalities Of Dating

Society has been steadily making progress with regards to gender equality over the last few decades, but one area where our culture is still lagging behind is in dating rituals. In particular, it's still far more common and expected for men to ask women out than the other way around. Most men still assume that they're going to have to make the first move. For women, even if they are willing to ask a man out, there can be social pressure against appearing assertive or too forward.

Even worse, many women have been taught that they should make a man actively pursue them, that the man should "work for it". See terrible books like The Rules and its various spin offs for some of this kind of advice. Not only does this help women to objectify themselves by quite literally setting themselves up as a "prize" to be "won", it sets up a totally unequal relationship right from the start.

So the interesting question is: what kinds of results should we expect to see when we have a dating culture with this role inequality?

One obvious result of this is that if men are the ones who are usually expected to ask someone out, then it shouldn't be at all surprising that the friend zone thing happens to them more often. If the guy has to make the first move most of the time, then it also means that when a man and woman are friends it's going to be the guy who most often ends up raising the possibility of becoming more than friends. Why would we expect it to be otherwise?

The Attractiveness Scale

Another thing to consider is that most people have a rough sense of where they are on the "attractiveness scale" (where attractive means any attribute of interest, not just physical attractiveness) and thus a sense of whether someone else is "out of their league". Everyone has a different idea of what is attractive, of course, so this is a bit grey, but on the whole most people will end up in successful relationships with someone who is roughly similar on the attractiveness scale. If you've ever heard someone say (or said it yourself, you know you have!), "Why is she with him?", or "He must be rich for her to be with him", or "He must be good in bed!", then you know exactly what I'm talking about. We're expressing a belief that the couple appears to be mismatched.

Jealously in relationships is often the result of one person feeling that they are not in the other person's league, basically worrying that they can "do better", and that insecurity leads to feeling jealous when their partner interacts with someone attractive of the opposite sex. So being with someone who you think is less attractive than you can lead you to think that you can do better, while being with someone that you think is far more attractive than you will make you worry that they can do better.

The end result is that people generally find themselves attracted to potential partners who are a little more attractive than themselves (being optimistic but not delusional). So when men ask women out, they're frequently going to try for someone who's a little more attractive than they are, but that woman probably has her eyes on some other guy who she sees as a little more attractive than herself.

Now, if men and women were both in the habit of asking each other out, this difference would tend to sort itself out because both sexes would get to experience more often the feeling of being rejected by someone more attractive, and having to reject someone less attractive, so they would much better calibrate to seeking people of a similar attractiveness. But when asking someone out is more one sided, you end up with women disproportionately "waiting for Mr Right", which means they're frequently getting asked out by someone they see as less attractive, which then increases the rate of friend zoning.

Towards Equality

So in the end, I'd argue that if we shifted culturally towards making it not just more socially acceptable, but actually expected, for women to ask men out just as much as men asking women out, then the friend zone problem would largely go away. When we set up our culture to disproportionately expect men to ask women out, men to pay for women on dates, men to do all the wooing and pursuing, then we set up women to be objectified prizes, we set up women to be passive and wait for a man to ask them out. Equality comes from a thousand little things in our culture, but having our relationships be unequal right from the very start should stand out as being one of the more obviously bad things.

So what should we do about it? We should certainly encourage women to make the first move and ask men out. Men shouldn't freak out or be intimidated by women who take the initiative, and women should support each other for doing that. In fact women should probably treat each other more like men do in this regard, giving each other shit for not having the courage to ask someone out.

The stereotype that women should be timid, demure and passive is a relic. If we want gender equality in our society then we need to take seriously our expectations of the behaviors of both sexes. Whenever we find ourselves expecting different kinds of behavior from men and women, we should examine that expectation and strongly consider discarding it.

Note: I know I didn't really deal with gay, transgender, etc relationships here, and simplified my language to imply I was talking about heterosexual relationships. I would assume that, broadly speaking, everything I've written here applies in those cases too, but I know far too little about behavioral expectations there to know if it's even an issue in those cases.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Productive Discussions, Part 2: The Bad Actor Problem

In the first part of this topic, I discussed what I call the good faith problem, where I argued that we should generally start off by having good faith in the intentions of the other party, rather than assuming the worst. But if we do that, then what happens when the other party actually does have bad intentions? How do we protect ourselves from getting tricked and manipulated by them?

I call this the bad actor problem. How do we have good faith in others while not becoming unreasonably exposed to bad actors?

Firstly, let's look at a great example of where this is happening in practice: the scientific peer-review process. The peer review process is a fundamental part of the system that allows us to have confidence in the output of scientists. We know that individual scientists can make mistakes, so we use the peer review process to let scientists check each others work and look for problems. The peer reviewed work then gets published in journals and other scientists will place confidence in it as a result.

The problem is, this system isn't very robust to bad actors. Scientists train long and hard to look for mistakes, but not so much for fraud and intentional deception. They can certainly spot it sometimes, but their primary focus is on uncovering the secrets of an objective universe that is trustworthy, not one that is constantly trying to trick them!

It's often been said that when you're trying to catch out a scientific charlatan, you don't take a scientist, you take a magician. The magician is the one that trains for years in human deception, and is far more likely to spot the tricks that the charlatan uses. In fact, there's a long sorry history of eminent scientists being fooled for precisely this reason.

Even when scientists are on the ball, there are so many ways for a bad actor to game the process. They can publish in less credible journals. They can shelve studies that are unfavorable and only publish the ones that turned out well, taking advantage of statistical probability to eventually give them a positive result. There are even far more subtle and insidious tactics like the one discussed in this article.

The scientific peer review process is actually in need of a thorough security review, the kind that is often done in other domains to spot flaws that can be exploited by bad actors. It's well known that, for example, giving people security passes can be fairly pointless if they are going to hold the door open for others out of politeness! Bad actors can exploit our good faith and manners, which can make security tough to get right, without having to resort to everyone assuming the worst of others.

Sometimes there is a clever solution, such as gyms I've been to where you step into an individual sized "airlock" tube to get in. It's physically impossible to let someone else in, so politeness can't be exploited. Security experts are trained to find these kinds of solutions.

But for the rest of us, in every day life, the best solutions are probably along the lines of the principle trust but verify. The idea is that you give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, but if something seems suspect you double check it. This might mean checking on something before making a reply if that's possible. It might mean saying something like "Let's assume that's true. Then...". Or it could be simply saying "I'm not sure about this thing, it doesn't line up with other things I've heard. Can you elaborate on it?"

This ties back in with the good faith problem. If you enter a discussion feeling like the other party has good faith in your intentions, then you're less likely to feel threatened if they question any of the particulars of the discussion. And when discussions are based on an assumption of trust, it then becomes easier to spot the bad actors, because they can't beat the verification part, and their behavior will often make it obvious that they're avoiding verification. But when discussions are antagonistic from the start, everyone looks like a bad actor to everyone else. And that makes productive discussion virtually impossible.

    Productive Discussions, Part 1: The Good Faith Problem

    As a coder, I've long had the theory that there are two types of coders, and you can tell which type you are with the following test: when you come across someone else's code and it appears wrong, do you assume that you've misunderstood it in some way and there are good reasons why it is the way it is, or do you assume that the person who wrote it is a bad coder?

    Now hopefully you think that every reasonable coder is in the first category, but I've been surprised in my career at just how many coders have the first instinct to shit all over other people's code (but let me be clear here, all of the coders in my current workplace are thankfully the first type). I don't know if it's due to ego, insecurity or something else, but a lot of coders feel the need to criticize other coder's work, and not in order to be helpful!

    In reality, experienced coders know that there can be a lot of reasons for code that doesn't make sense: maybe you simply don't understand it ('clever' use of templates comes to mind here); maybe it made sense alongside other code that existed at the time, but that code is now gone; maybe there were various time constraints and the code was written as well as possible within them; maybe there were known bad hacks for some deadline that never got removed later on; maybe it was prototype code that was never intended to make it into production (surely that never happens!); or maybe the coder was, in fact, inexperienced at the time, and lacked proper mentoring and review.

    There are so many reasons why less than optimal code can exist in a codebase, so jumping to the conclusion that you're smarter than the person who wrote it, and they're a dumb-ass, really says so much more about you than about the other person.

    I call this the good faith problem. When you are in a situation where you can choose between initially assuming that you've misunderstood something, or assuming something negative about the other party, which do you go for? Do you start with a good faith trust of the other person's abilities and intentions, or do you start assuming the worst, and then force them to prove otherwise?

    Now, while I thought up this model in the context of software development, I've noticed recently just how much this actually seems to reflect the behavior of people in all kinds of discussions. On news programs, in online discussions, everywhere that people with differing views face each other, discussion seems to be getting more and more polarized, with each party assuming the worst possible intentions and motives of the other.

    When two parties are discussing some disagreement about climate change, there's the immediate assumption that one is an apologist for fossil fuels or a science denier, while the other is anti-business. When there is a discussion about anti-vaccination, there's the assumption that one side is an anti-science moron, and that the other side is fooled by big pharma. When there is a discussion about left versus right politics, one side is a lazy socialist freeloader, while the other side is a big business tax avoider that hates the poor. And so on.

    Rather than assuming that the other party may have good information that we don't, or assuming that maybe they've missed the good information we've seen, the temptation is there to just jump to the worst, that they're stupid, ignorant, or even willfully malicious with a hidden agenda.

    One reason that I think this is becoming so common is that it's an effective debating tactic. If you can level accusations at the other party, then it puts them on the defensive as they are forced to disprove them. Further, if you can convince yourself that the other party has bad intentions, then you no longer feel the need to address any valid criticisms that they have. If you can assassinate their character, then you no longer need to deal with the substance of their arguments.

    Productive discussion requires that we have some degree of good faith in the intentions and intelligence of the people we are discussing with. When we detect something that doesn't make sense, we shouldn't immediately assume that it's the other person's fault. We should consider whether or not we've misunderstood and then try to fix that misunderstanding.

    Giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst is usually going to make for a more productive discussion than starting with the equivalent of "You're an evil dumbass. Prove me wrong!"

    In part 2 of this topic, I'm going to look at when the other party actually is bad intentioned, with what I call the bad actor problem.

    Sunday, April 10, 2016

    Abortion: Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, or a Third Option?

    Update: After running into the problem of a lot of people apparently misunderstanding the point of this post, I figure it's prudent to state explicitly up front what I'm trying to say:

    There is a difference between having laws written a certain way for pragmatic reasons, and having solid moral grounding for those laws. Canada is a country that has legal abortion on request up to birth, and I agree that, pragmatically, this law probably gives the best outcomes, and other countries should adopt it. However, it's not a morally sound law. Pretending, legally, that a foetus is effectively just a hunk of flesh up until the moment of birth, when it suddenly gains full rights as a human, is pragmatically useful, but it's not at all how people actually feel about the issue, and this includes Pro-Choice people. So I'm arguing here that the Pro-Choice stance is not a good one to use as a basis for this law, and that what I call the Pro-Quality-of-Life stance is a more honest position about how people actually feel about abortion, and allows for a better justification for a pragmatic abortion law like Canada has.

    Abortion tends to be a very sensitive topic for most people, and not surprisingly so. After all, it touches on questions of human life, the obligations of the state to protect lives, and the rights of people to choose what happens to their own bodies.

    But while it can be a difficult topic to discuss, I feel that too many people turn it into a false dichotomy under the labels Pro-Life and Pro Choice, and then refuse to acknowledge and discuss the nuances that make it a non-trivial issue.

    What I want to discuss here is why I think both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice are overly simplistic stances on abortion, and propose some ideas towards what I think is a more reasonable position, which for want of a better name, I call Pro-Quality-of-Life.

    The Complications of a Pro-Life Stance

    Inevitably, many people who take a Pro Life stance on abortion do so for religious reasons. If you hold a belief that humans have this thing called a soul, and that it enters the human body at some point, then it's not at all unreasonable to base your stance on abortion around that idea. If you believe that the killing of a soul is what makes murder such a bad thing, then it's going to follow that you will equate abortion with murder once you consider the soul to be present.

    For the most part, I'm going to ignore religious justifications for abortion positions because, quite frankly, they belong in modern ethical discussions as much as witches and demons do. However, the reality is that religion actually plays a big role in many present day human rights debates, such as abortion, contraception, euthanasia and gay rights. To actually bring about social change we have to take these religious justifications into account, but for the purposes of just trying to sort through the actual moral issues surrounding abortion, I'm going to assume that the people with faith-based justifications have already stormed away in anger, and I can just stick to reason and evidence-based discussion here.

    The interesting thing about the Pro-Life stance is that it can be a fairly reasonable stance without any appeal to religion. There is a genuine problem in having to set hard cutoffs along the continuum from conception to birth, deciding when a fetus is now deserving of rights as a person. Despite the complications that the "moment of conception" is far more complicated and fuzzily defined, and that a viable fetus can be born up to several months premature and still become a human being, there is still an issue here to resolve.

    Perhaps it's a little like the arbitrary nature of 18 being recognized as legal adulthood. We understand that a switch isn't magically flipped at this age, and that people can mature at different rates, but the fact remains that the human brain develops its various abilities of reasoning and introspection over time and most people have developed them sufficiently enough around this age that it's acceptable to hold them accountable for their actions. Everyone is different, but for the sake of a smoothly running society it's efficient to just set an age and base the law around it.

    So we need to set a similar point in fetal development, and decide that after that point a fetus will have the rights of a human. Now, even then, it's still not so simple, because even if a fetus is a viable human being, it's still not independent of the mother, and so when there are complications and the mother's life is at risk, it can still be reasonable to sacrifice the life of the fetus for the sake of the mother.

    But one thing we should recognize here is that starting as a zygote, becoming an embryo, become a fetus, then becoming a human, are all stages along a path from "potential human being" to "actual human being", and that while many things can go wrong along the way, the fact that it is a potential human being that we're considering aborting should not be dismissed lightly. In determining what age of the fetus is a reasonable cutoff for abortion to be reasonable, often comparisons to other animals are made, looking at what structures have formed in the fetus. Arguments have been made that abortion could be reasonable at up to 6 months due to the fact that the parts of the brain that are uniquely human and not found in other primates don't form until that point.

    This is a line of reasoning that we should treat with some degree of suspicion, for the simple fact that we give human beings special status in the law compared to all other animals. We generally treat crimes committed against humans much differently to those against other animals, and award a much wider set of rights (and responsibilities) to humans than other animals. So comparisons to other animals can be useful at times, but we must be very careful when we do it.

    The fact that we legally recognize humans in a special way that we don't with other animals might mean that we need to recognize "potential humans" in a special way. Or it might not. But it shouldn't be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant.

    Everyone is Actually Pro-Life

    Now, the main argument of the Pro-Choice stance is that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her own body. Neither the government or anyone else should be able to force her to carry a child to term if she doesn't want to.

    The big problem here is that Pro-Choice people don't actually believe that.

    Ask any Pro-Choice person when they think is a reasonable cut-off date for allowing abortion. Maybe it's three months. Maybe it's six months. Almost certainly it won't be the moment before giving birth. I think you'll find few, if any, people who would support abortion if a mother decides 10 minutes before going into labor that she's changed her mind and wants out. Would it be reasonable at that point to kill the fetus (it's still technically a fetus!) simply because the mother changed her mind?

    Assuming you don't support abortion until the moment of birth, then that means you support the idea that, at some point during pregnancy, the mother no longer has a right to choose. You agree that after some point, if the mother changes her mind, she shouldn't be allowed to abort the fetus. And that of course means that to some degree you agree that it is in fact reasonable for the state to tell a woman what she can do with her body.

    There is certainly a lot of discussion that should be had about a woman's right to choose, but throwing around the idea that no one should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body is just not helpful, and an attempt to oversimplify a complicated issue. We frequently accept the idea that the government can impose its will on people's bodies under certain circumstances. Placing a person in prison is exactly this. And saying that the government can forbid abortion after a certain point in fetal development is another, and one that everyone actually seems to accept in practice, regardless of their Pro-Life or Pro-Choice stance (with exceptions such as protecting the life of the mother of course).

    Pro-Choice People Are Often Not Really Pro-Choice

    Let's look at some of the details of the Pro-Choice stance, because the are several categories of choice that are typically looked at:
    • Having an abortion to protect the life of the mother
    • Having an abortion due to rape or some form of forced pregnancy
    • Having an abortion due to changing your mind
    The first two categories here tend to be the least controversial. Even many Pro-Life people will agree that if a mother's life is in danger, or if she was made pregnant through no choice of her own, there should be a right to have an abortion.

    The interesting case is the pure choice one. This is the case where a woman falls pregnant through not using contraception, failure of contraception, or simply changing her mind once pregnant. Effectively, the Pro-Choice stance is that a woman can fall pregnant, decide that she doesn't really want the child after all (for whatever reason), and have an abortion.

    But to properly evaluate exactly what rights should be considered reasonable here, we must also look at what rights we consider reasonable for the man in this situation. Pregnancy issues are complicated by the fact that the woman is the one who must carry the child to term, but legally we put responsibilities on both the man and the woman.

    So what happens when a couple falls pregnant and the man decides he doesn't want the child? Most people would certainly agree that the man has no right to force the woman to have an abortion, but what about the right to give up all responsibility for the child? Should a man effectively be able to have the legal stance of not being able to stop the child from being born, but not having any legal obligation to that child because he doesn't want it?

    Many people say no. They will argue that the man needs to take responsibility for his actions, and even that "he should have thought about that before having sex". But consider that if we intend to take that stance, then why shouldn't the same argument be applied to women? If a man should be expected to think about the consequences before having sex, then why shouldn't a woman also? Surely no Pro-Choice person believes that a man is capable of thinking ahead, but a woman isn't.

    So there is a genuine problem here that if a man can't legally walk away from pregnancy because he changes his mind, then a woman probably shouldn't be able to either. And conversely, if a woman can change her mind after falling pregnant, then a man should have similar rights as well.

    It's because of this problem that I think you could make a plausible argument that abortion should be acceptable to protect the life of the mother or if it was involuntary (e.g. rape), but if the pregnancy was entirely of the mother's free choice, then she should be expected to take responsibility for it and not be allowed to abort the fetus just because she changed her mind. This isn't my actual position, but I think you could make a reasonable case for it.


    In reality, we want to protect mothers and their children from deadbeat fathers who leave them without support. So in practice we tend not to let men walk away from pregnancies without requiring some kind of child support payments. This can be unfair in some cases, but in general we're saying that the welfare of the child is more important than the rights of the parents. I certainly agree that if a child is going to be born then its quality of life should be the priority. But where possible, it's better to not have a child unless you really want it.

    And that leads to the general principle that I tend to use when thinking about abortion issues: an unwanted child results in bad outcomes for everyone.

    Far too many people have children that they didn't really want or weren't ready for. People will have a child in the hopes of strengthening a failing relationship. People have children when they're not in a sufficiently financially stable position to take care of them.

    The human population is hardly in decline. We have all sorts of resource and environmental crises to deal with precisely because there are far too many of us and we keep overbreeding. So if any would-be parent isn't 100% behind the idea of having their child, then forcing them to have it isn't doing anyone any favours. It's no good for the parents, it's a potentially shitty life for the child, and society doesn't need more unloved children to deal with.

    So I tend to argue for the Pro-Quality-of-Life stance. When we need to decide on particulars of abortion laws, err on the side of avoiding unwanted births. Life for life's sake doesn't do anyone any favours. Raising a child is a big responsibility and we should respect those parents who take it seriously and do it well. We shouldn't demonize or stigmatize those who realize they aren't ready for the commitment, and as much as is reasonable, we should tailor our laws towards supporting wanted children, and minimizing unwanted children.

    In practice, this stance will tend to be quite similar to Pro-Choice in outcome, but the reasoning is different. Pro-Life focuses on the rights of the fetus. Pro-Choice focuses on the rights of the pregnant woman. Pro-Quality-of-Life focuses on the overall best outcomes for children, mothers, fathers, and society as a whole.

    Saturday, April 9, 2016

    Is Jiu Jitsu Really As Effective As The UFC Makes It Appear?

     Dispelling Bullshit

    I'm not a person who tends to be very interested in watching sports, and while this is also true when it comes to The Ultimate Fighting Championship, I have a lot of respect for one huge benefit that it has had: UFC has been revolutionary in dispelling fighting technique bullshit.

    When it comes to effective fighting techniques, there is so much misinformation and misconception out there, that for years no one really knew which martial arts really were effective and which weren't. The problem is largely that fighters typically train with very strict rules to avoid injury, and frequently only train with other practitioners of their martial art, making it very hard to gauge effectiveness in the real world. This also makes it easy for people to delude themselves or intentionally deceive others about their techniques without ever really getting a chance to be proven wrong.

    The extent of bullshit out there really is staggering, and when occasionally a good debunking has happened, it's hard to accept that the people involved were able to fool themselves so fully and for so long.

    Check out these examples of decades long practitioners of martial arts that claim to be able to knock people down without even touching them.

    A chi master demonstrates his amazing techniques but is unable to use them on a "non-believer", coming up with some stunningly lame justifications for the failure:

    And this very popular video of a Kiai master who finally fights someone who isn't a student engaging in self-deception:

    While these examples of ineffectiveness won't surprise most people, problems like these exist within serious martial arts too. So the UFC, particularly in its early days when it had less rules, has been a great proving ground, bringing practitioners of different disciplines together and forcing them to demonstrate the hard way which is more effective. It's brutal, people have been killed and permanently injured, but the fighting arts have massively benefited as a result.

    If you wonder why most martial artists today are mixed martial artists, it's because of the UFC.

    The Rise of Grappling

    One big result that has come out of all of this is the rise of grappling and jiu jitsu. It became quickly apparent to everyone how often fights end up going to the ground, and when this happens, the person trained in grappling always dominates. Most traditional martial arts have little or no ground based techniques, so any well rounded fighter needs to incorporate these into their martial art. Questions like "Is karate better than kung fu?" were answered with "The jiu jitsu guy will probably beat them both."

    Most modern UFC fighters include grappling or jiu jitsu training into their routine, and many fighters base their strategy on trying to get the fight onto the ground where they can dominate.

    But could this effectiveness of jiu jitsu actually be misleading?

    One of the most interesting things about grappling martial arts is that, because they are not strike based, people can train in them with a much lower risk of injury. Striking martial arts require literally "pulling your punches" and heavy use of pads and protective gear for practitioners to not end up permanently injured immediately.

    Grappling, on the other hand, involves choking out or putting the opponent in a hold they can't escape, which they tap out from (or pass out from). The technique does not have to be watered down in training, meaning that all of those hours of fighting practice are much more directly applicable to real fights. It also means that a fighter is much more likely to be able to gain years of experience and skill without receiving a major career ending injury.

    Skydiving and Effective Training

    A friend of mine (Hi Paul!) who is an experienced skydiver and wingsuiter once explained to me the problem with become highly skilled with wing suits. With skydiving, you can clock up training hours not just by jumping out of planes, but also using indoor wind tunnels. Jumping out of planes takes a lot of time and money for every few minutes of air time you get, so being able to clock up hours more efficiently indoors allows skydivers to improve their skills much faster.

    But with wingsuits, you can't effectively fly them indoors. The only real way to gain experience in a wingsuit is doing a jump. This means that it takes much longer to gain skill and experience, and learning new tricks and techniques is much slower than with skydiving.

    This is similar to the problem with grappling versus striking martial arts. Safe but highly effective training is much easier with jiu jitsu than with kick boxing, and the injury rate much lower. Jiu jitsu practitioners can clock up hours of realistic training much faster than other martial arts, and are less likely to be interrupted by injuries. This also means that over the course of time, striking martial artists will tend to get more injured and forced to retire, so we should expect to see the best martial artists appear to be strongly grappling focused.

    So this means that jiu jitsu might not be as effective as it appears. It might just mean that someone is more likely to be able to practice jiu jitsu and engage in real fights for 20 years than with other martial arts. We might be seeing an example of what's known as the survivorship bias, where we notice the examples that have survived long enough to be counted, but forget about all the cases where bad luck made them disappear from our radars.

    The Future of Martial Arts

    At the end of the day, it might not really matter if jiu jitsu is as effective as it appears, or if it is largely benefiting from a lower injury attrition rate. For a person who wants to learn effective martial arts, it might simply be more pragmatic to engage in an art that is less effective, but doesn't require luck to be able to practice it long term without serious injury.

    But what about the future? Right now a striking martial artist can use various tools to try and train as effectively as possible with the limitation that they can't just pummel the shit out of other human beings in order to refine their technique. It helps to an extent, but it's clearly a disadvantage. However, as robotics technology improves in the next couple of decades, we are going to be able to make training partners that people will be able to engage against fully without having to modify their techniques to avoid hurting their partner, and also not have to risk receiving injuring blows themselves.

    When this kind of training becomes possible, I think we're going to see another revolution in martial arts training.

    Sunday, April 3, 2016

    Have We Finally Hit Peak Excessive Camera Effects in Games?

    Over the last few years we've been seeing an increase in the use of various camera effects in games, particularly in cinematics, designed to mimic effects that we see on real cameras. I want to argue in this post that this is a bad trend that we need to move away from, but that it's also a necessary evil we need to work through in order to get to the other side, where games develop their own visual language independent from film and real world cameras.

    But first, in order to better make my point, let's talk briefly about UIs (User Interfaces).

    The Transition to Flat UIs

    For quite a few years, UIs on computers gradually evolved fancier looking 3D designs. One of the main reasons for this was that flat, 2D UIs looked simple and cheap to most people's eyes. It was hard to tell the difference between an intentionally simple UI and a cheaply made one.

    But it started getting to the point that people were feeling the the 3D was becoming excessive and wondering how far it could go.

    A big change then happened when Microsoft started promoting its Metro UI (there's a longer history there that's not worth going into) and Apple introduced iOS 7. Finally it was acceptable to have flat, minimalist UIs. This has been largely helped by more sophisticated UI toolkits that allow for heavy use of animation and transforms of different kinds to keep the UI interesting without having to resort to gaudy 3D elements.

    Camera Effects

    I would argue that this is the same process that games have been going through, and I think we might finally be getting to the point that UIs got to when the switch to flat occurred.

    Games have always tried to introduce fancy visual effects as a differentiator between budget and AAA titles, and camera effects are a big part of that. Particularly as games have become more mainstream and have had higher production quality trailers made for them, the language of film has also been brought across as a way to make them look slicker and more expensive.

    Some of this language is arguably good and improves games:
    • Camera cuts
    • Angles and positioning
    • Simulating focus and depth of field can tell the player what they should be looking at and communicate things like disorientation
    • Camera movements like shaky cam can add to immersion
    But some of the stuff that we've brought across are just artifacts from real world cameras that often don't even make any sense in a game like a first person shooter where people are supposed to be looking through human eyes:
    • Lens flares
    • Dirt and grit on the lens
    • Chromatic aberration

    And there's also the problem of limiting the language of games by using the language of movies. Games are their own medium and need to develop their own camera language. When games mimic film in cutscenes by doing the "handheld camera" effect to appear more gritty, or limit themselves to the pan, zoom and rotation limits of real physical cameras, they miss an opportunity. Games can certainly be interactive movies if they want, but they can also be so much more than that.

    The "Flat UI" Of Camera Effects

    I think the industry might finally be ready to accept simple visuals as deliberate design choices rather than a sign of cheapness. Now that free games engines like Unreal Engine, CryEngine and Unity make good looking graphics accessible to indie developers and not just AAA developers, graphics are become less of a product differentiator, and certainly a less reliable way to tell a cheap game from an expensive game.

    Games like The Witness have shown how you can have simple but gorgeous graphic design without using gaudy camera effects. The introduction of Virtual Reality devices to the mainstream will also force developers to not be able to rely on camera effects, as these can be quite jarring and sickening in VR. Things like shaky cam are no longer a crutch that can be relied on!

    Personally, I've always been a sucker for graphics, and so I've enjoyed the excessive camera effects just as much as I've enjoyed seeing clean, simple visuals. But I do think games need to develop their own voice and identity separate to film and television, and ditching the camera effects will be a step in that direction.

      Why Do We Respect Queues?

      We come across queues in all kinds of places in society. When we recognize that there are several people who all are waiting for something, we will generally agree that it's fair to get it in the order of arrival. Whether it's waiting for the bus, going into a theater, lining up for the next iPhone or getting ice cream on a hot day, most people tend to respect the queue.

      Some people certainly will queue jump or just barge straight in to the front of a line, but generally as long as it isn't a case of scarcity and people being afraid to miss out, most people will play along. If there is scarcity, like American Black Friday sales for example, then you tend to see the normal good behavior break down and it's everyone for themselves. There are limits to politeness for most people!

      But why do we do this at all? Pushing in on a queue isn't breaking any law. For the most part, people won't stop you either. There's a typical range of responses you'll get:
      • Nothing at all
      • Glares and angry faces
      • Muttered objections
      • Direct objections
      • Direct objections with an order to get to the end of the queue
      • Physically being pushed from the queue
      • A physical fight
      Now obviously, depending on where the queue is and who is on it, the probabilities of those different responses can vary wildly. Pushing in on a queue of drunk football fans lining up for beers is typically going to get a different response than a queue of old ladies lining up for bingo. But even in the much safer cases where any kind of real retaliation is unlikely, people will still usually do the right thing.

      Social Pressure

      What it all tends to come down to is social pressures and shaming. Society has long relied on people taking cues from those around them as to what is normal and acceptable, and various kinds of pressures to keep people in check. Most of us have a desire to be seen as a decent person, not an asshole, so usually mild pressures are enough. Getting told off once for jumping a queue is often enough for most people to not do it again.

      Imagine if we had to turn every act of queue jumping into a matter that involved the police. Imagine if we needed the police to step in every time someone littered. A huge amount of what allows society to work with some degree of smoothness is the part that we all play in observing cultural norms and applying mild pressure to each other to keep to them.

      This is one reason why a lot of the feel-good motivational slogans that say things like "You shouldn't care what other people think", "Do what you want to do, not what other people want you to", and "Give zero fucks" are actually really terrible advice that makes society much worse. If everyone did that for real, we'd quite literally have a society of sociopaths, people who don't care how their actions impact on others.

      Crossing The Street In Vietnam

      If you've ever seen a video like the one above, showing how you cross the street in Vietnamese cities like Ho Chi Minh City, you know that the key is to move slowly and predictably. If all the vehicles can predict where you're going to be when they get to you, they will avoid you and you'll be fine. But this only works if everyone plays along. If people had a tendency to be unpredictable, the whole thing would fall apart. It's like the system is a chaotic but well oiled machine, and unpredictable movements by pedestrians are friction that slows the whole machine down.

      The same tends to be true of society in general. While we don't like to push people to conform completely, and everyone loves to be an individual, we rely on people fitting in to social norms an expectations for the most part, because it makes social interactions more predictable, and in the end that tends to reduce friction. People don't have to worry all the time about how they should behave in different situations, or whether they came across as an asshole to someone else because they each had different social expectations.

      Shaming and Retaliation

      The problem with all of this, though, is that the same mechanisms that help society can also be misused to make people conform unfairly. The pressures of social norms can be used to ostracize people who dress differently, have different religious or political views to the majority, or have different interests. As a simple example, the UK is heavily a pub culture, based around the idea that everyone likes to drink alcohol and is interested in watching/discussing sports.

      Further is the problem that these localized social pressures can now, thanks to social media, become global scale shamings. Our society hasn't caught up with this yet, and so the mechanisms that work fairly well on a small scale when only a few people are involved can cause massive problems and destroy lives when those social communications are shared online with the entire world.

      Finally, society also hasn't found good ways to deal with the fact that technology makes the usual retaliation methods not work. When a person pushes in on a queue in real life, there are more subtle options available like a glare or a simple verbal challenge. In social media, it's mostly text, and so people tend to overcompensate and become incredibly rude incredibly fast, because they don't have any subtle ways to provide pressure.

      And if you've ever wondered why road rage exists, it's for the same reason. When someone pushes in front of you in their car or does something else socially rude, they are protected inside a big metal box from normal social retaliation. You can't glare or tell them off like you could if they bumped into you walking along the street. People feel that their usual mechanisms for providing social pressure aren't there, and they also feel that it's unfair that the person gets away with it, not even knowing that they pissed people off, and so people tend to perform more extreme retaliations. It's not that people are assholes, it's that in cars the subtle retaliations are taken away from them.


      If we want society to keep running smoothly as technology changes it, and as social norms themselves change and evolve, we need to remember that pressures to conform to social norms are the lubrication that keeps social interactions running smoothly. They can be used for good or bad, but society can't function without them, at least not in any way that we've figured out yet. We need to stay vigilant to their abuse, but we also need to accept that unless we want to live in some kind of Orwellian surveillance state with no freedom, abuses will happen sometimes, and as long as they're not too serious or damaging that might be the necessary price of a working society.

      Sunday, February 21, 2016

      Are People Still Not Realizing How Different The US 2016 Election Is?

      At the time that I am writing this, Donald Trump is looking to be the clear leader as the Republican candidate for the general election, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still competing strongly for the lead. The general opinion seems to be that a lot of Democrats want Bernie Sanders, but feel that Hillary Clinton is the only one of the two who has a real chance of winning a general election.

      This situation will probably largely sort itself out in a little over a week with the Super Tuesday elections, when we'll see if the Bernie Sanders idealists win out, or the Hillary Clinton "she knows how to play the game" / "it's time for a female president" crowd do.

      I've been a Sanders supporter from the start, and I've found it interesting and amusing to watch the mental contortions of people during this election cycle, both on the Democratic and Republican sides, as they've constantly had their beliefs on how elections work be challenged, and then struggle to make sense of what they're seeing and make meaningful predictions for the future.

      Go back about 8 or 9 months when candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump announced their intention to run for president. So many people were constantly saying that these were unelectable candidates, they weren't serious candidates, that it was a waste of time to pay attention to them.

      I watched with disappointment as people like Bill Maher would say things like (paraphrasing) "I love Bernie Sanders, but he'll never be president", and then with amusement recently as he now endorses Sanders and criticizes all of those people who won't take him seriously as a candidate!

      The right wing media has tried so desperately to make Donald Trump go away, and he just won't go away. He's a mostly self-funded billionaire candidate, and he can afford to stick around as long as he wants. He doesn't need to pander to the media, he knows how to manipulate the media, and they're completely unprepared for dealing with this.

      Back in August, I wrote a blog post about how we're at a point where needing lots of money to pander to big media is no longer necessary for a candidate to get noticed. It's now Facebook, Twitter and Google that are largely determining what news people are seeing, and that's why Bernie Sanders became a viable candidate. His supporters have made him go viral despite all the money being thrown at the media in support of Hillary Clinton.

      So here's the interesting thing: for all of the people who insisted that Trump and Sanders couldn't possibly become serious contenders for the presidency, you were wrong. Whatever your intuitions or arguments were, they've already been proven to be invalid in this election cycle to some degree. Given this information, do you now keep making predictions based on your previous intuitions, or do you step back and admit that if you were so wrong in your predictions about the election up to now, then maybe your future predictions are going to be just as unreliable?

      For all of the people insisting that Bernie Sanders can't possibly win a general election, you may of course be totally right. But if you also insisted that he couldn't even get to this level of popularity, then you already have good evidence that you don't understand this election cycle. Having your predictions proven wrong and then being convinced your new predictions will be right is simply not being willing to adjust your views to new evidence.

      Basically, if you were previously saying that there couldn't possibly be a Sanders vs Trump general election, then you should probably shut up about whether Sanders can win a general election. And if your main reason for preferring Clinton over Sanders is because you think only she has a chance at winning, then please, have the intellectual integrity to step back, notice just how wrong your and most other peoples intuitions have been about this election, and stop continuing to make bad predictions that will lead to bad decisions.

      There is actually a real chance at a US election where people can vote for an idealistic candidate who genuinely wants to change things rather than just seeking power. He may not succeed with the things he wants to achieve, but the US political system is desperately in need of a shake up, and a shake up towards idealism rather than cynicism. People's confidence in anything useful actually getting done is at an all time low, and voting in more of the same type of people is probably just going to get more of the same type of results.

      Monday, February 15, 2016

      Why Liquid Democracy is a Terrible Idea

      If this was democracy it would be terrible.

      In recent years the concept of liquid democracy, aka delegative democracy, has become popular, and I've heard it advocated by a lot of smart people. The basic concept is that, rather than electing a single individual as the representative of your community to act on your behalf on all matters, you can choose individuals to vote on your behalf on specific areas of governance. In other words, if someone is recognized as a particular authority on some area of legislation, people will delegate their vote to that person on those issues. The hope is that votes on particular legislation will be made more intelligently and with less party politics, corruption and other issues undermining the whole system.

      Like many things, I think this is an idea that sounds great in theory but is probably terrible in practice (or at best, just as bad as representational democracy). I think it is mistaken in much the same ways that people in the 90s gushed about how the internet would level playing fields and give a voice to everyone, and how the wisdom of the crowds would make all the important news and information rise to the top, rather than the advertising driven, clickbait, mob virality ecosystem ruled by large corporations such as Google and Facebook that we actually ended up with.

      If you see elected representatives as simply there to stand as a proxy for the people who elected them, a simple sum of what each of those people would have voted for on a particular issue, then it's easy to see why people might consider them an unnecessary burden. But elected representatives aren't just opinion accumulators. Their job (at least when they actually do it properly!) is to spend the time to understand issues and vote on behalf of the people who elected them. Individual citizens don't have the time to have deep understanding of all of the issues that are part of running a society. It's good to have some awareness of issues so you can better judge if your representative is doing a good job, but the point is to pick someone who you trust to act on your behalf and spend the time you don't have to hopefully make better decisions.

      Now, given this, it would seem like liquid democracy might give better results. The main problem is that most people are lazy, uninformed, and unwilling to spend much time.

      For liquid democracy to work, it requires people to typically pick a greater number of delegates. Some people will take the time and effort to do that, of course, but most people probably wont. They will pick one or a very small number of people. And how will they decide? Rather than any kind of nuanced investigation, they'll just tend to go with whomever their peers go with.

      So let's consider a particular area that is contentious, like reproductive rights. Do you think that most Americans will delegate their vote on these issues to scientists? Or do you think they think the relevant authorities on these issues are rather their pastors and priests? And how progressive will those results end up?

      Or how about climate change. How many people will delegate to respected climate scientists, and how many will delegate to that "maverick" climate scientist that Fox News told them to delegate to?

      The problem with delegating to authorities is that most people don't have a clue who the authorities are! They take their cues from biased news organizations, their religious leaders, and whatever shows up in their Twitter/Facebook feed, so these are the actual authorities they're effectively delegating to. And the result would be shit.

      Liquid democracy considers its agility to be a virtue, but in a lot of ways, the relative slowness of our current systems can actually be useful. Having people in power for a certain length of time allows them to actually get things done without constantly worrying about having their "authority" revoked, which is considered a feature of liquid democracy. If there's anything we should have learned from social media in the present, it's just how quickly stupid shit can become viral and huge numbers of people get obsessed with it, and then just as quickly disappear and the next viral thing becomes the most important thing ever. Having a system that can smooth out these opinion spikes as people jump on different bandwagons is becoming increasingly important, and liquid democracy seems particularly fragile to it.

      Perhaps I've just become very cynical. Where some people see citizen journalism and an internet where every voice can be heard, I see clickbait, virality of articles that arouse anger and outrage, and no one wanting to pay for real journalism. Where some people see the sharing economy and apps that empower people, I see corporations exploiting people and avoiding regulations and legal obligations. And where some people see the empowerment of individuals to play a greater role in the democratic process, I see a small number of individuals taking the time and effort to do it right, and the majority making terrible delegation decisions that result in an even worse system than what we currently have.

      Are Fines Unjust?

      Even a $10,000 fine is cheap for a millionaire
      In society we generally consider several different types of punishment acceptable for different crimes. We have (in some places) the death penalty, imprisonment, community service, and monetary fines as the most common types. All of these are intended to serve one or more of the following purposes:
      • Keep high risk people from being able to re-offend (imprisonment, death penalty)
      • Have some kind of cost to the offender so they are less likely to do it again, and to deter potential offenders (all types)
      • Provide a feeling of justice being served to the victims (all types)
      • Provide rehabilitation to the offender to reduce chances of re-offending (imprisonment)
      • Raise revenues for the police and the state in general (fines, community service in an indirect way)
      Fines are used very frequently as a punishment for non-violent crimes and in particular, crimes that are often committed by "regular" people: speeding, parking violations, minor property damage.

      What I want to argue here is that monetary fines are an unjust form of punishment and that we should consider replacing them in all cases with community service, imprisonment, or something similar.

      Resource Deprivation

      Monetary fines differ from the other forms of punishment in one significant way: all of the other punishments effectively deprive the offender of time. You take a certain amount of time and force the offender to do something they don't want to do with that time: some sort of community service, sit in a jail cell. And what is significant about that is that everyone, rich or poor, has (roughly speaking) the same amount of it, and can't create more.

      A billionaire can have orders of magnitude more money than a homeless person, but even paying for all the best medical services money can buy, can't really get more than a few years of extra time. And time lost can't be replaced. The opportunities that are missed are often missed for good because time keeps moving forward and can't be re-experienced.

      So a punishment that involves time deprivation is much more likely to be an equal deterrent to all people than one that involves monetary deprivation. A $500 fine for illegal parking isn't going to deter a millionaire in a rush anywhere near as much as a minimum wage worker, but 40 hours of community service will.

      Equal Punishment

      Some countries, such as Finland, use a model for some fines that is based on the income of the offender, rather than having an absolute value to the fine. This is definitely an improvement, since it means a rich person will get a proportionately greater fine, but it still doesn't solve the problem. After all, a millionaire can typically get by losing, say, 10% of their income better than a person who is struggling to make ends meet. The simple fact is that even if you hit a wealthy person with a proportionately larger fine than a poorer person, it's never going to affect them in the same way.

      I suspect that the very reason fines exist for many of the (non-violent) crimes that a rich person is likely to commit is because the rich and powerful push for it. Monetary fines just become a cost of doing business. To a rich person, an illegal parking fine is just an expensive parking space. A speeding ticket is an "express lane" fee. Even when we look at the crimes committed by investment banks over the last decade, tens of billions of dollars have been paid in fines but generally no jail time or even admitting guilt by any of the parties. The fines are literally just treated like an extra tax for their line of business.

      Time based penalties change all of this. It equalizes the punishment and costs something that is precious to everyone. And when it comes in the form of community service, it also allows things to get done that are often hard for local government to justify when they have to explicitly pay for them. It effectively serves as a form of cheap labour, so it's like revenue raising, except that it's done directly in the form of labour, so there's no opportunity for monetary revenues to be siphoned off inappropriately by government departments.

      Perverse Incentives

      The other very useful feature of time based punishments is that it removes the perverse incentives that monetary punishments create for law enforcement. When the police can directly generate revenues via fines, then there is an incentive to allocate more resources to the types of policing that generate revenue, rather than the policing that is most needed by the community. There are plenty of stories of police being given quotas for things like speeding fines, and this sort of situation is unlikely to result in the best outcomes for the community.

      Of course, police services are often underfunded, so it's not surprising that they will overpolice in ways that generate revenue. But it will also be the case that when it's known that the police have this revenue source available, they are also less likely to receive direct funding in government budgets, which creates a vicious cycle. So they will also probably be better off to have this revenue source closed off, so the government has to accept that it must directly provide 100% of the funding, and the police can get back to doing what's best for the community.