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.