Categories
New

Things July 2019: Bias, Co-operation, Location, Video Games

Extremely Generic Questions

In earlier iterations of Things I would often set readers a puzzle or ask a tricky question, with answers reviewed in the next edition. I’d like to start a new series of these that I’m calling Extremely Generic Questions: questions often asked, but not very specific or even necessarily well-defined. The puzzle is not only to try to find the best answer to a question, but also to understand why it is so often asked.

So, the first question: what is wrong with young people today?

Subconscious bias

If you want to make optimal decisions, and also just be a decent person, I think subconscious bias is a very important factor to be aware of. Many people believe their judgement of aptitude is not influenced by gender (or any other unrelated characteristic), but data suggests this is not be the case.

Anecdotally but compellingly, there’s the email signature swap story, in which a male and female colleague swap their email signatures for a week and observe radical differences in how clients interact with them. Pleasingly, you can read the accounts of this from each side.

Auditions for an orchestra have the advantage that they can be conducted in a thoroughly meritocratic manner without ever actually seeing the candidates. It turns out that blind orchestra auditions improved women’s chances of success by 50%.

Similarly, scientific proposals for time using the Hubble Space telescope tried going partially blind; the results again showed women benefited from a more meritocratic process.

As I am sometimes involved with hiring people for work, I tried a version of this by making sure names were removed from CV’s before I reviewed them. Of course, I don’t have any large scale data to compare results, but the feeling of trying to assess a nameless CV was alarmingly transformative! It became very clear that as soon as I saw a name, I would start to construct a mental image based on (irrelevant) associations I had with people similarly named, and would then build on that image as I read the rest of the CV. Without a name as a starting point, the process of evaluation immediately felt like harder work, but also a lot more objective. Based on this and the above findings, I highly recommend it.

Thinking, Fast And Slow

After many years of seeing it recommended, I finally read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which covers a lot of the biases I’ve been fascinated by for so long from essentially the very coal-face of that research.

I found it fascinating throughout and can see why so many recommended it, although I didn’t always agree with the interpretations. Given that I’m just some guy who studied maths/physics and read a few things, and the author is a Nobel prize winner with decades in the field, I have to recognise that my position on this is likely tenuous, but at least as far as maths go I feel I can comment.

Here’s my brief highlights.

Probability Problems
There is a strange and fuzzy line between not understanding what a question means, and not getting the answer right. I could ask people what 3 χ 4 is, and if they think it’s 12, that doesn’t mean they’re mysteriously misguided, it more likely means they just don’t know chi-notation*.  In many of the studies, participants were shown to give incorrect answers to statements involving probability, but one could just as well argue that participants didn’t really understand the statement and so were guessing. To be fair, the book goes on to show how phrasing probability questions differently (to my mind, more clearly) helps people reach more accurate results.

This is what I talked about in Things 122 on the topic of the Linda Problem / Conjunction Fallacy.

Forecasting and regression to the mean
I have to do quite a bit of forecasting at work, and I was surprised I had never come across this excellent rubric for anticipating a certain amount of regression to the mean.

Briefly: if you evaluate, say, fifty people on a task that involves some luck as well as skill, like accurately throwing something, then the people who did the very best (or the very worst) on their first attempt are unlikely to do as well (or badly) on a second attempt; their results were probably mostly flukes, and they will tend to ‘regress to the mean’.

If I am evaluating 12 different marketing campaigns and trying to forecast how well they do in future, the same kind of rule applies. The one that did very best was at least partially ‘lucky’, so will not necessarily be the best in future.

The rubric is as follows:
a) If the measure you want to predict has zero correlation with their future values (which you can figure out by viewing historical data), then you should predict that regardless of how they did, they will all perform averagely in future.

b) If the measure you want to predict perfectly correlates with the future, so whatever is the best now will be the best in future, then obviously you should predict that.

c) If the correlation between the present and the future is x%, then you should forecast any present deviation from average performance will decrease by (1-x)%!

That’s the terse version, you can read more about it here.

Evaluation of experiences
How much you liked or disliked an experience would intuitively be based on how long it was, and how much you were liking or disliking it at the time. Something that was unpleasant for 10 minutes should surely be ranked as worse than something that was unpleasant for only 5 minutes.

In practice, this isn’t how we evaluate things at all. We very highly weight our peak enjoyment (or discomfort), and how happy (or unhappy) we were at the very end of the experience, and a little bit the beginning; the absolute duration plays only a small part.

This probably means you should take fewer, shorter holidays, but it also depends on how you weight the importance of what Kahneman calls the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”, which is quite a tricky philosophical problem.

Life is like an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, except different

As a student I was very interested in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the iterated version, in which one must choose to Co-operate with (C) or Defect against (D) another player making the same choice, knowing that you will come out best (and they worst) if you D while they C, but you will both do terribly if you both choose D.

One critical element: you can’t communicate with the other player. In the iterated version, the choice of C and D is effectively the method by which you communicate.

Meanwhile in real life, most of the time, the thing most likely to help you is another human, and the thing most likely to do you harm is also another human, which means interacting with other humans is a pretty crucial business. In particular it’s good to be able to figure out – and influence – who is likely to co-operate (C) with you and who is likely to try to take advantage of (D) you.

I studied maths and physics as a student, but struggled to understand human behaviour. By studying subjects where exam answers were simply right or wrong, and doing quite well at those, I (and I suspect many others in the same situation) thought that I must be quite clever, and the reason I can’t understand human behaviour is because other people are just acting irrationally.

Now, it is true that people act irrationally a lot of the time (see the last Things), but that also includes me, and a lot of the things I couldn’t understand eventually made more sense when I realised that life was like an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, except that rounds aren’t discrete or simultaneous and there are multiple and varying pay-off matrices in play all the time.

For example, I noticed people asked “How are you?” but didn’t actually want to know, which seemed irrational. This was laid bare for me in a dentist’s waiting room when one elderly person entered and recognised another, and the following exchange took place:

A: Oh, hello there! How are you?
B: I’m fine, how are you?
A: I’m fine thanks. So [short pause] how are you then?
B: Well, I’ve been having this awful pain in my side, so I went to the doctor last week …

Similarly, as a marketing grad I was sent out with a cameraman to stop people on the street and get their opinions on climate change for a vox pop montage. I would walk up to people and ask them right away, and nobody stopped to answer. The cameraman, who had done this before, told me I should ask them how they were first. This seemed ridiculous, as a person approaching you with a microphone and film camera obviously doesn’t care how you are, they just want to film you saying something. But I tried asking anyway, and suddenly just about everyone was then happy to give their opinion on climate change for the camera.

I realised the whole “How are you” bit is like a tiny move in an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma in which you are really communicating “I will co-operate with you”, and the other person can demonstrate a reciprocal intention by asking you the same thing back. This then sets the scene for further and deeper co-operation.

Moves aren’t just made in speech either. I thought buttoned shirts were ridiculous in comparison with t-shirts: uncomfortable, more time-consuming to put on and remove, and harder to clean. Why would anyone choose to wear one? But it turns out clothing is a widely understood opening move in our co-operation dialogues. We learn that we can estimate by someone’s clothes how likely they are to co-operate with or benefit us in certain ways; uniforms do this in an overt way, but even a slight deviation from your company’s dress code sends a signal.

Cat and girl covered this, of course.

More generally, these kinds of behaviours make a society cohesive – by doing what everyone else does, you tacitly signal that you are a good co-operator in your society. At the same time it can make society conservative, as anyone deviating from locally normal behaviour (even for rational reasons) might be read as less co-operative, and so they will encounter more friction.

Location Encoding

What3Words (W3W) assigns each 3m x 3m square on Earth a three word designation (e.g. Each.Useful.Shark). This makes it fantastic for real-world treasure hunts, so long as the participants can use the mobile app, and I’ve made a couple of events that leveraged it to (I thought) rather fun effect.

However, Richard brought to my attention that among people interested in the general problem of addressing, W3W is viewed very negatively. Why is that?

Reading up on the subject (this post was particularly useful), it seems like W3W lacks some attributes a truly general Location Encoding system should really have. But what really annoys people who understand this area well is that W3W tends to put out PR that claims to be strong in the areas it is weak. In brief:

  • W3W is a private company (probably hoping to be acquired by another one). Location/address is something that works best when it’s a standard, and having a private company own a standard leads to conflicts of interest. (See the Microsoft ‘Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish’ strategy for an example of how private companies fight public standards).
  • W3W is not a good solution for emergency situations (calling an ambulance to your location; calling a Fire Engine to a location you see on fire).
  • W3W is not error tolerant and has no hierarchy (e.g. one mis-spelt/mis-remembered character has very little chance of being corrected, in contrast with traditional addresses, where post accurately addressed apart from saying “Brighton” instead of “Hove” still successfully gets to Hove with the word Brighton angrily crossed out and corrected).

Still, I do think W3W has some value, and it would be unreasonable to discard it entirely because it can’t do everything – indeed, no address system can meet all the requirements we might ask of it.

Google Maps’ location-sharing functionality covers many options, and has the benefit of being already available in many people’s pockets, but I recently had a situation where both intuitive addressing and Google failed: meeting at the “Joe’s Café in Soho” does not specify a unique location, and the inaccuracy of GPS meant a shared Google location didn’t resolve the matter either. W3W is actually pretty excellent for this sort of spontaneous meeting. All things considered though, the best thing about it really does seem to be the opportunities for Treasure Hunts.

Video Games

I’ve played some games since the last Things, some of which I recommend, and some of which I don’t!

Baba Is You (Steam, Humble store, itch.io, Switch)

The mostly instantly-gettable trailer seems to be in this tweet:

For Things readers partial to self-referentiality and all things meta (and I know there are a bunch of you), this is certainly worth a look. As the above video shows, the game is played by pushing things around, including words that define the rules of the game.

In practice it’s even more mind-boggling than I expected, but not actually as much fun as I had hoped.

Celeste (Steam, itch.io, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Pico-8 prototype)
If you want a platform game with puzzle elements and enjoy dying repeatedly while you slowly get better at doing difficult things, this is extremely the thing for you. The soundtrack is quite lovely too.

My save file, 44 hours, 10,000+ deaths, is a review in itself (implicit spoilers split-by-level version is here):

Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time (Steam, Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
Looks exactly like what it is: a rather nice local co-op shooter in which you and some friends control characters running around a ship manning the helm/gun/shield/panic-button and rescuing animals in space.

Thomas Was Alone (Direct for Mac or PC, iOS, Android, Steam)
A kind of “self-aware” puzzle-platformer that everyone was going on about a few years ago; I finally tried it and found it dull and not at all as funny as it seemed to think it was, with frustratingly vague platforming physics.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch and Wii U only)
An open world epic about saving the world which I tried – and failed – to enjoy for about 12 hours before giving up. Almost everything about it felt like a chore and I couldn’t understand how it gained such universal acclaim.

After a weirdly long time adventuring in my underwear, I finally found someone who would sell me clothes.

To pick one example, a complaint I had heard from some was that weapons could only be used a certain amount of time before they fell apart and had to be replaced. I thought this was just misguided resentment of a feature clearly designed to add strategy to battles, but then I spent the first hour of the game picking up and discarding 37 differently ineffectual sticks (you can only hold a few at a time) and fought about 5 monsters. It felt like I spent substantially more time managing my ineffectual stick inventory than having battles, and so the whole weapons feature then felt like busywork.

Loading screen tip: read loading screen tips. By definition, this is useful to nobody.

Perhaps the worst part is I still feel like I “should” give it more of a chance, or at least get more entertainment for my money, when rationally I know there must be more games out there like Celeste which were an order of magnitude more fun for a fraction of the price.

Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4 only)
Snakes on a Plane is a great title for a film because it perfectly sells the premise. Horizon Zero Dawn is a terrible name in that regard, but the promotional art sells the premise perfectly:

Tribal humans hunting robot dinosaurs! Which immediately looks like something I want to try, and also very quickly raises the question of just how such a scenario could even come about. It turns out the game is exactly about those two things: hunting robot dinosaurs while figuring out how this happened!

It certainly stands on the shoulders of giants in terms of the use of ‘Open World’ game conventions, but it adds a few interesting ideas and does just about everything you would hope to extremely well.

*I made up “chi-notation”, because I couldn’t think of a clearer example, it seemed funny, and illustrates the point just as well.

– Transmission finally ends

Categories
New

Things April 2017: Multiplayer Mobile games, Weight loss and Physics, Paranoia and Tolerance

This issue of Things was initially drafted in January 2016 and for various reasons is just coming out now. Let’s see how out of date it is…

Mobile Game of the Moment: Dreii

Mobile gaming is very exciting, because touch-interface location-aware always-online devices open up an amazing new landscape of interactive possibilities. Mobile gaming is also very depressing because these possibilities are rarely harnessed in an interesting way, and even when they are it rarely leads to commercial success.

This is exactly why I’m recommending you get Dreii right now (available on Android, iOS and also on Steam).

It’s an elegant physics-based puzzler in which you try to stack objects under various challenging constraints. The really brilliant bit is that you get to co-operate with anyone else that happens to be playing the same level (on any device) at the same time as you. There’s also a rather lovely map visualisation in which you can see what levels others are playing to better seek them out – or go back and help another player make it through to the one you’re stuck on!

The helpfulness of others is massively varying, which is part of the charm. I recommend it right now as the recent launch ensures a goodly surge of currently active players.

Update: well, that was written about a year ago, so I can’t really recommend it as much because few are now playing it. You can do local co-op with someone else playing at the same time though, so it’s still worth a go if you can arrange for that!

Or go and play the other brilliant game I got into in the intervening time: Snakebird (iOS, Android, Steam), an incredibly simple yet extremely difficult puzzle game.

Or go and play Crash of Cars (iOS, Android), which is real-time arcade-style car combat and is being played by a few million people at the time of writing.

Humans are More Complicated than Physics, part 94: Weight vs Diet

If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.
– Michael Bloomberg

It seems most people agree with Bloomberg’s appealing logic. It turns out, as it often does, that humans are more complicated than simple physics would suggest.

Vox has a great look at the energy-in energy-out model here. The most striking conclusion of their wide-ranging review of research is that exercise is great for health, but not for weight loss. For weight loss, diet is a much more important component. So Bloomberg is sounding roughly right, but the mystery then deepens when we consider a study that found people on the same diet and exercise regimes put on more weight now than they did in the 80’s.  Note that although the Atlantic’s headline is “Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s”, the article doesn’t answer the question, because we don’t actually know. We just have some theories.

Finally, on Aeon, David Berreby dives a lot deeper into this mystery. Most striking for me was the finding that over the last two decades, animals as well as humans have gained weight – including lab mice, which have gained an average of 11% per decade despite having rigorously consistent diets. If you want to read about some fascinating theories on why this might be happening (light? BPA? A virus?), go check it out.

Since that was all a bit depressing, here’s some fun data on how the UK’s diet has changed over time.

Paranoia in Politics

Quite a few months ago (er, a year ago now) Charlie Stross wrote about the Paranoid Style in politics. He cites two fascinating essays charting the relationship between paranoia / conspiracy-theories and US Republicans (one from 50 years ago and one more recent). Things like “9/11 was an inside job”, vaccine-related conspiracies, or any time you hear the phrase “Liberal elite”. Stross then adds his own interpretation of how the internet has reinforced this and given rise to (take a deep breath) an “ad-hoc movement of angry ideologues who have jabbed their fungal hyphae into the cerebral cortex of Reddit and n-chan to parasitically control the rageface collective.”

Well, a year has gone by and this has all become rather more clear. I think the only useful thing to add is that Popularism (in the sense of a political movement that believes most of the existing power structures are self-serving, corrupt, and out-of-touch) is clearly a close relative of the Paranoid Style.

Google Image Reverse Search growing in Intelligence?

If you want to search based on an image (to find where it came from, or a higher resolution version) you can use TinEye and get limited but exact results. Or you can use Google’s “Search by image” functionality to get a wide range of approximate results. I do this quite a lot while trying to track down the artists behind work I post on my daily drawing Tumblr.

I recently tried to use it to trace the origin of this piece:

I was unable to find the artist, but I was extremely impressed that Google suggested a page of ‘similar images’ which were indeed a lot of paintings of cats with a similar colour palette and often distorted proportions:

You can of course use these properties of the search algorithm to generate art.

Tolerating the Tolerable

I can Tolerate anything except the Outgroup” is an essay by Scott Alexander on filter bubbles and tolerance. It’s so interesting to me that I’ll summarise it all below, but I recommend reading it in full.

  • Alexander defines Tolerance as “respect and kindness toward members of an Outgroup”, and defines an Outgroup as a group that has “proximity plus small differences”: a group of people who live in the same neighbourhood but who are ‘slightly’ different to you. I’m capitalising these terms because the definitions aren’t sufficiently general – for example, you could be racist but still Tolerant under this definition.
  • He broadens typical US political alignments into ‘tribes’: Conservatives are Red tribe, Liberals are Blue tribe (the US political colour binary reverses the UK’s). As a side note he also identifies a libertarian-leaning Grey Tribe, which I’ve found to be a useful concept – the Grey tribe is typified by:

“…libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk”

  • Alexander then asserts that the liberal Blue tribe’s outgroup is in fact the Red tribe. He gives the interesting example of being roundly criticised by Blues for expressing any kind of relief at Osama bin Laden’s death, only to later see those same people openly celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Finally, he suggests that political articles that reference ‘Americans’ or ‘White people’, written by Blue tribe people (who are notionally included in those groups), are tacitly actually about Red tribe members, and when a Blue says “I can tolerate anything except intolerance”, they are identifying intolerance with the Red tribe and are actually saying “I can tolerate anything except the Red tribe / my Outgroup” which no longer sounds that impressive.

In an excellent coda, Alexander then realises that he’s doing the same thing: criticising a group he notionally is a member of (the Blue tribe), but actually criticising his Outgroup, as he realises he’s probably Grey.

While I think this is an interesting argument, I do think it’s important to note that being intolerant of a group of people who hold opposing political views (which can’t be identified on sight, and can change) seems far less egregious than being intolerant of people who simply look a certain way. Views are, after all, one step away from Actions, but that’s a distinction I’ll get to in the next edition of Things.

– Transmission finally ends

Categories
New

Things November 2015: Movie ratings, Pain, Empathy and Expathy

Movie Rating Distribution

Walt Hickey was curious about the ratings on Fandango (which are clearly suspect), but in his investigation he brought together this nice collection of rating distribution data:

Just as I found when considering the ratings of animated movies, IMDB ratings tend to span around 5.5 to 8.3, whereas Rotten Tomatoes actually spans 0% to 100%.

Check out the whole thing to discover some of Fandango’s shenanigans.

Pain is Really Strange

For excellent research and presentation of a complex and important topic, I highly recommend the comic Pain is Really Strange by Steve Haines and illustrated by Sophie Standing:

Copyright © Steve Haines 2015, Illustrations Copyright © Sophie Standing 2015, reproduced by permission of Jessica Kingsley Publishers

The key insight is that pain (and particularly chronic pain) does not correlate reliably with tissue damage, with psychological / neurological factors also playing a huge part. I was particularly interested to find out that the term “slipped disc” is not only innaccurate, but can actually cause a patient to experience more pain than if a more benevolent-sounding term is used!

I give this the Thing of the Month award. Go check it out on the publisher’s site or put it on a Christmas wishlist at Amazon.

(Also just out, Trauma is Really Strange, which I assume to be similarly good).

Mobile Game: Horizon Chase

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrfuIKYrfyQ

If you enjoyed any racing games from the 80s or early 90s, Horizon Chase is a brilliant throwback to the gameplay of that era. You can buy it on iOS, or, in a fascinating nod towards the different store design that represents a whole other subject I’ll get to one of these days, you can get the first few levels for free before paying to unlock the rest on Android.

Three things to know:

  • Features fake driving physics, which is more fun than real driving physics! (I found the article about how they achieved this quite fascinating).
  • Your car has a slower acceleration but faster top speed than all the others! This means every race is about overtaking your way from last place to first, which is the most fun thing.
  • The soundtrack is chiptune-tastic and by Barry Leitch if that means anything to you.

Empathy vs. the Viral Straw Men

Empathy: Understanding the experience of others.

Othering: Explicitly or (more often) implicitly suggesting a group or particular person is somehow “different”, with intent to slightly turn the listener against that group/person.

These two concepts are often tied up with our tribe-like identities: when someone we consider to be “one of thus” says something, we tend to empathise; when someone from an opposing tribe says something, we consider them ‘Other’ and tend towards the opposite of empathy – I don’t see a good term for it but we could call it “expathy”.

The Daily Mail provides regular examples of this. News stories about people the paper wants us to feel sympathy for will emphasise the traits that align them with the presumed Mail readership’s tribal identity: atomic families, hard-workers, church-goers.  Stories that tilt the opposite way will make note of how their subjects differ from this group: single mums, people on benefits, followers of other religions or atheists. Describing a group of people as a “swarm” is an Othering technique.

As is often the case, it’s easier to see this mechanism at work in others than ourselves. A liberal encountering a conservative expressing their views on wealth redistribution might demonstrate expathy by assuming the conservative hates poor people, worships money, and is selfish – but the conservative may be none of those things, and genuinely believe that if policy reflected their views perfectly, everyone that truly “deserves” success would get it. (You can tell I’m a liberal and still can’t shake the expathy from the distancing quotation marks).

Similarly, a conservative encountering a liberal expressing their views on wealth redistribution demonstrates expathy when they assume the liberal is blind to real-world complications, and/or that they are some kind of Western-society-hating communist.

If you want to understand someone and possibly even try to change their mind, empathy rather than expathy seems a good place to start. I think this is what lies behind the quote:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
– Martin Luther King, Jr

If you need more practical advice on how to do that, Daniel Dennett has it:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I think this is particularly important as the tribe-shaping influence of social media means that content which mocks straw-man versions of opponents’ views goes viral but only serves to polarise us and silence meaningful debate.

Digital Culture update: Music Industry Seems Fine Actually

I’ve  been very curious to know the impact the internet has had on the music industry now that the dust has somewhat settled. More importantly, how are the actual musicians doing? John B sends in this NY Times article which does a wonderful job of rounding up the pertinent data (for the US at least), and finds that things are actually looking pretty good.

Things updates: Propellers and Music

Back in Things 80 (September 2010) I shared a surreal photo of a spinning propeller generated by the rolling shutter effect. Richard sends in a link to these lovely animations that make this process much clearer!

After discussing various ways music can be reworked last month, people continue to send in interesting examples.

Deb sends in a rare example of the ‘remix’ in which the lyrics are the only part that has been preserved, with Tom Basden’s version of Mamma Mia:

For my part, I realised I forgot one of my all-time favourites, The Apples’ jazzy instrumental take on Rage Against the Machine’s famous Christmas number 1, Killing in the Name:

Laurence points to the strange outlier that is the French version of the A-Team theme tune, complete with weird lyrics. He further provides an example concatenating as many examples of reworking as possible in a series with Hooked on a Feeling, which I paraphrase here:

  • The original is by B.J. Thomas
  • This was … somethinged … and had the ‘ooga chaka’s added by Blue Swede (This is the version that most people know from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.)
  • The Blue Swede version was covered by David Hasselhoff
  • And the Hasselhoff version was relyriced by David A. Scott of Literal Video:

Is it possible to find a longer string, or one covering more types of rework?!

– Transmission finally ends