Life as a Video Game

A fun, thoughtful post by Oliver Emberton, likening life to a game:

Every decision you have to make costs willpower, and decisions where you have to suppress an appealing option for a less appealing one (e.g. exercise instead of watch TV) require a lot of willpower.

There are various tricks to keep your behaviour in line:

  1. Keep your state high. If you’re hungry, exhausted, or utterly deprived of fun, your willpower will collapse. Ensure you take consistently good care of yourself.
  2. Don’t demand too much willpower from one day. Spread your most demanding tasks over multiple days, and mix them in with less demanding ones.
  3. Attempt the most important tasks first. This makes other tasks more difficult, but makes your top task more likely.
  4. Reduce the need to use willpower by reducing choices. If you’re trying to work on a computer that can access Facebook, you’ll need more willpower because you’re constantly choosing the hard task over the easy one. Eliminate such distractions.

A key part of playing the game is balancing your competing priorities with the state of your body. Just don’t leave yourself on autopilot, or you’ll never get anything done.

Worth clicking for the 8-bit character representations alone.

The Jamaican Bobsled Team is Headed to Sochi

This is a cool story (get it, cool?) about the Jamaican bobsled team heading to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. As the team was unable to cover all expenses, the founders of Dogecoin, stepped in to help:

The team — led by Winston Watt, a veteran driver who piloted the Olympic team in 2002, and anchored by brakeman Marvin Dixon — has found support among the founders of Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency that is part Bitcoin, part Internet dog meme. Liam Butler, who runs the Dogecoin Foundation, started Dogesled to raise money for the team after hearing that Watt had personally funded its trip to a training session but would be unable to come up with the money needed to fly the team to Sochi, Russia. The Dogesled fund raised almost $25,000 in 12 hours — causing the Dogecoin to Bitcoin exchange rate to spike by about 50 percent — and has reached its $30,000 goal.

No doubt the push to send the team to the Olympics is fueled by the cult following of 1993’s “Cool Runnings,” the quintessential underdog movie. The film was loosely based on the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that became the country’s first to qualify for the Olympics, an incredible feat for four men from a tropical country with little to no experience on snow. As I’ve noted before, the generation that grew up in the ’90s is and should be a prime target for sports leagues and marketers — we’re more engaged with social media and willing to spend our money on such nostalgia.

Cool Runnings!

On the Strange Transcendence of Flappy Bird

Curious to find out what the big deal was, I downloaded a game called Flappy Bird on my iPhone. I’ve been playing the game for a total of about two hours or so, and yes, it is very addicting (and difficult!). In a great piece for The Atlantic, video game critic Ian Bogost explains why Flappy Bird is popular, difficult, and addicting:

Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. Scoring even a single point takes most players a considerable number of runs. After an hour, I’d managed a high score of two. Many, many hours of play later, my high score is 32, a feat that has earned me the game’s gold medal (whatever that means).

There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocoreamong the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress. Commercial blockbusters like Mega Man inaugurated the category (even if the term “masocore” appeared long after Capcom first released that title in 1987), and more recent independent titles like I Wanna Be The Guyand Super Meat Boy have further explored the idea of intense difficulty as a primary aesthetic. Combined with repetition and progression, the intense difficulty of masocore games often produces a feeling of profound accomplishment, an underdog’s victory in the dorky medium of underdogs themselves, 2d platformer videogames.

flappy

On what makes Flappy Bird so difficult:

Contemporary design practice surely would recommend an “easy” first pipe sequence to get the player started, perhaps a few pipes positioned at the bird’s initial position, or with wider openings for easier passage. More difficult maneuvers, such as quick shifts from high to low pipe openings, would be reserved for later in the game, with difficulty ramping up as the player demonstrates increased expertise.

But Flappy Bird offers no such scaffolding. Instead, every pipe and every point is completely identical: randomly positioned but uniform in every other way. A game of Flappy Bird is a series of identical maneuvers, one after the other. All you have to do is keep responding to them, a task made possible by the game’s predictable and utterly reasonable interactions. Just keep flapping.

This is a very introspective analysis:

What we appreciate aboutFlappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

And then Bogost gets transcendental:

Flappy Bird is not amateurish nor sociopathic. Instead, it is something more unusual. It is earnest. It is exactly what it is, and it is unapologetic. Not even unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite that crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.

I flap, therefore I am.

Happy 10th Birthday, Facebook

Today is the 10th anniversary of the founding of Facebook. The social network has come a long way, and in a blog post, Mark Zuckerberg reflects on its trajectory from a Harvard-only network to the worldwide use of it today:

When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it. 

The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more. 

While some doubted that connecting the world was actually important, we were building. While others doubted that this would be sustainable, you were forming lasting connections. 

We just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else. And we still do today.

That last sentence? I believe it was true at the time, but it’s no longer as applicable. Today, as a public corporation, the customers/users are less important that the big shareholders. The biggest evidence I see of this is the repeated pronouncements by users who say their content is viewed/shared less after Facebook tweaked its algorithms. But, if you are willing to pay a few dollars, Facebook will make sure to show your posts in your fans’ news feed. That’s a far cry from really caring about caring to connect the world, if what I have to share/say with my friends/fans literally comes at a price.

 

Before Laika: the Soviet Space Dogs

This is a very interesting post on Medium about the dogs the Soviets sent into space in the 1950s:

While the US test rocket programme used monkeys, about two thirds of whom died, dogs were chosen by the Soviets for their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity, and were trained extensively before they flew. Only stray female dogs were used because it was thought they’d be better able to cope with the extreme stress of spaceflight, and the bubble-helmeted spacesuits designed for the programme were equipped with a device to collect feces and urine that only worked with females.

Training included standing still for long periods, wearing the spacesuits, being confined in increasingly small boxes for 15-20 days at a time, riding in centrifuges to simulate the high acceleration of launch, and being placed in machines that simulated the vibrations and loud noises of a rocket.

The first pair of dogs to travel to space were Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), who made it to 110km on 22 July 1951 and were recovered, unharmed by their ordeal, the next day. Dezik returned to space in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa, but neither survived the journey. After Dezik’s death, Tsygan was adopted by Anatoli Blagronravov, a physician who later worked closely with the United States at the height of the Cold War to promote international cooperation on spaceflight.

They were followed by Smelaya (“Brave”), who defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”). Another runaway was Bolik, who successfully escaped a few days before her flight in September 1951. Her replacement was ignomoniously named ZIB — the Russian acronym for “Substitute for Missing Bolik”, and was a street dog found running around the barracks where the tests were being conducted. Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.

A good piece of trivia from the piece: Laika wasn’t the original name for the most famous of Russian space dogs; it was named Kudryavka (Russian: Кудрявка, meaning Little Curly) before its name was changed.

Can You Tickle Yourself If You Swap Bodies With Someone?

The short answer is no. According to latest research, summarized here:

A popular, long-standing theory posits that the self-tickle failure occurs because of the way that the brain cancels out sensations caused by its own movements. To do this, so the theory states, the brain uses the motor command underlying a given action to make a prediction of the likely sensory consequences of that action. When incoming sensory information matches the prediction, it’s recognised as self-generated and cancelled.

If this explanation is true, then any situations that confuse the brain’s ability to predict the sensory consequences of its own actions should scupper the sensory cancellation process, thereby making self-tickling a possibility. George Van Doorn and his colleagues have put this principle to the test in dramatic fashion. They measured the potential for self-tickling in 23 participants who underwent a body-swap illusion.

The experimental set-up involved each participant sitting opposite the experimenter. The participant wore a pair of goggles that displayed a video feed from a camera that was either placed forward-facing on the participant’s own head (giving them a conventional first-person perspective), or was positioned forward-facing on the experimenter’s head, thus giving the participant a view from the experimenter’s perspective and provoking a body-swap illusion.

During both of these camera arrangements, the participant and experimenter each held one end of a wooden rod with foam at each end. The participant either moved the rod rhythmically with their right hand, causing the foam to rub against their own left palm (potentially causing self-tickling), and the experimenter’s left palm. Or, the experimenter was the one who moved the rod, causing the foam to rub against’s participant’s left palm (i.e. potential for tickling by another person) and his own left palm.

During the body-swap illusion, the participants said they felt the sensation of the foam, not where their real hand was located, but at the position of the experimenter’s hand. Given the illusion, they perceived this to be their own hand, even though it looked like someone else’s. Crucially, even in this strange situation, the participants were still unable to tickle themselves if they were the ones moving the rod (they felt the foam, but it didn’t tickle). They felt much more of tickling sensation when it was the experimenter who moved the rod.

The classic theory for why we can’t tickle ourselves is unable to explain why tickling is still not possible even in such extreme illusory contexts when the brain’s ability to predict the sensory outcomes of its actions is thrown into disarray. Moreover, self-tickling was still not experienced even in variations of the experimental setup, in which the body-swap illusion was combined with the “rubber hand illusion” and the movement of the foam was felt in a baseball bat viewed from the experimenter’s perspective!

 

RIP, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are reporting that Phillip Seymour Hoffman has died, reportedly from a drug overdose. What a sad day, a giant loss, one of the best actors of his generations.

Worth reading today, this 2008 profile of the actor in New York Times Magazine “A Higher Calling”:

From his first roles in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” in which he played a villainous prep-school student, to the lovesick Scotty J. in “Boogie Nights,” to the passionate and ornery rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” Hoffman has imbued all his characters with a combination of the familiar and the unique. It’s not easy; it’s the sort of acting that requires enormous range, as well as a kind of stubborn determination and a profound lack of vanity. In the theater, Hoffman finds refuge in being part of a community. Theater presents considerable difficulties — Hoffman said his most challenging role for the stage was as Jamie Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” on Broadway (“That nearly killed me”). But when he speaks about his work in films, Hoffman’s struggles sound lonelier: his childhood dream was to be on the stage, and the fulfillment of that fantasy seems to mitigate some of the strain Hoffman experiences when he is acting.

“In my mid-20s, an actor told me, ‘Acting ain’t no puzzle,’ ” Hoffman said, after returning to his seat. “I thought: ‘Ain’t no puzzle?!?’ You must be bad!” He laughed. “You must be really bad, because it is a puzzle. Creating anything is hard. It’s a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything. I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie. You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again. The key is you have to commit. And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

For all of his struggles, Hoffman works a lot — he’s a very active co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company, a multicultural collective in New York that specializes in new American plays. LAB mounted five productions last year, thanks in large part to Hoffman’s diligent involvement with every aspect of the process, from fund-raising to directing to acting. “I’ve seen him tear tickets and seat people at LAB productions,” said John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of “Doubt” and himself a LAB company member. In his 17-year-long career, Hoffman has also made more than 40 films, including “Doubt,” for which he has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor, and “Synecdoche, New York,” which was also released this year. “Synecdoche,” which was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, is a hugely ambitious film that deals with death and art and how they come to inform one another. Hoffman plays a theater director, Caden Cotard, who wins a MacArthur and uses the prize money to begin an autobiographical play so enormous that it swallows his actual life. The movie is, as Manohla Dargis wrote in her glowing review in The Times, “about . . . the search for an authentic self in an unauthentic world.” The plot may get murky and the worlds within worlds (within worlds) are often confusing, but the film lingers in your memory, largely because of Hoffman’s performance. As he grows old, disintegrates, misses romantic connections and suffers loss after loss in pursuit of his artistic vision, Hoffman remains the emotional center of the film.

A torturous soul, he reflected on the art of acting being the same:

But that deep kind of love comes at a price: for me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.

RIP, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.