Witness Me

Some time ago, I wrote about feeling a need to challenge myself in new ways. It wasn’t just a matter of trying activities that were new and difficult, because it’s easy enough to do a new thing once and award yourself a gold star for being open-minded.

The point of the exercise was to stick with it, to confront my status as an absolute beginner, to repeatedly bungle simple tasks and be unable to produce anything of value… and to be okay with it. To be okay with sucking at something, possibly for a really long time, and maybe, eventually, to get comfortable with that idea.

I chose three activities for myself under these auspices last year: software development, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and electronic music. Looking back, I’d say that my record is decidedly mixed, because it’s hard to be bad at something and to know it. But that’s a subject for another post.

I’m reminded of all this because I’ve been playing a pair of video games that have turned me into a hapless newbie, while somehow causing me to love every minute of it. I think that is true virtuosity in game design.


 

I listened to a gaming podcast recently where panelists were discussing XCOM 2 in dismissive, almost petulant tones. One guy complained that the sequel was a giant step back from the first game in practically every way. He felt that the game threw too much information and too many choices at the player, such that he had no idea what was important and what he could safely ignore. There was no clear path to success. No matter what he did things were spinning out of his control, and he hated it. He pined for the relative simplicity and linearity of the first game.

xcom2_slums_sectopod_1-0

Welcome back, Commander! Prepare to get housed.

I wanted to yell CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE HIT UPON THE POINT OF THIS GAME in my imaginary depiction of this guy’s face. Which which would have been weird, because I was walking down Ventura Boulevard by myself. Nevertheless, I was as angry at this dude as he was at XCOM 2.

The single most important thing about XCOM 2 is that you have already lost at the outset of the game. The first thing you learn after coming out of cold storage is that your resounding victory at the end of the first game was temporary. The aliens came back, defeated your forces, and have been running the planet for 20 years. Earth isn’t yours any more.

Losers don’t get a clear path to victory, bro. Paths to victory are for winners only. You aren’t defending what you already have because you don’t have anything: zero information, few resources, little manpower, and practically no hope. You are clawing your way out of the grave. You are on the Long March.

Believe me when I say that the game made me feel this on a visceral level. For most of the 40ish hours of the single-player campaign (and this was on the normal difficulty setting, mind you), the game kept me suspended right on the edge of losing. That is an extremely tough balance to strike game design-wise.

On the management level, I had to learn the hard way which opportunities were worth pursuing and which were expensive wastes of time, and there were lots and lots of the latter. At no point did I have enough time or money to build everything I needed to build. In combat, my soldiers were killed wholesale — even my very best guys, who in the first game effectively became invincible after a while.

Some players might consider this state of affairs unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unfair. I thought it was awesome because every single choice mattered. I was the one deciphering how to survive, delay, and eventually thrive, so when I finally got the ship turned around and pointed in the right direction, it felt like a real accomplishment. I did the work, I beat the aliens, and now I want to play again on an even more masochistic difficulty level.


 

Meanwhile, I haven’t beaten The Witness yet. I’m honestly not sure I ever will, at least not on my own. But I am sure as hell going to keep trying.

the_witness_shady_trees_2

If you can draw a line, you can beat The Witness. In theory.

Although it isn’t run by a sinister alien administration, it’s clear that the humans in this game’s world also lost control. The island on which you find yourself is filled with statues of people in every conceivable pose and situation, as if they were caught in a nuclear blast that turned them to stone instead of vaporizing them. Some of these stone people seem to be running away from something. Others are angrily confronting one another, or kicking back and relaxing, or peering intently at their stone laptops.

Other than those statues, your only companions in this game are abandoned and often crumbling buildings, plant life, exceptionally gorgeous vistas, and hundreds upon hundreds of maze boards. Your only jobs are to explore the island and complete those mazes until… something… happens. Maybe you finally learn what happened to everyone. I have no idea.

In The Witness, exploration and puzzle completion are entwined in a very interesting way. The boards are tied together in long sequences that teach you the rudiments of a visual language from first principles as you complete the puzzles. In addition to being highly complex, this language’s grammar is fragmented, such that new rules are spread all over the island in bits and pieces. Thus progressing through the game is partially a matter of holistically hunting for clues. Formerly impassable areas can click into focus once you learn something from another location.

But let me tell you, that learning is hard-won. The simplest way to describe this game is that it makes me feel like a preschooler again. As such, it invokes both child-like wonder and child-like frustration. I don’t understand anything, I don’t know how anything works, and I can’t make any progress… until, suddenly, somehow, I come to look at things in a new way.

There is no real algorithm for this. It certainly isn’t a matter of trying solutions until I randomly hit on something. Attempting to brute force these puzzles is a recipe for migraine. The best way to describe the method, to the extent there is one, is to think divergently. It’s meditative, not systematic, and that is why I think the game cultivates such a quiet and contemplative atmosphere.

This sense of a mental door opening is the currency in which the game trades. Most games only ever hit this note a single time, if at all, but The Witness invokes it repeatedly. Each time it does, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and I want another dose. But then I have to wait–sometimes staring at a particularly tough puzzle for hours in total, leaving and returning multiple times–until it comes again. I don’t want anyone to tell me the solution. That would ruin everything.

I had been stuck in this game for weeks until last night, when I suddenly made a breakthrough and ran through 20 puzzles in a row. And now I’m stuck again, but I know I can do it… maybe. From what I’ve read, I’m about halfway through.


 

As I get older, I find that these are increasingly the kinds of games I want to play. My time, and energy are so much more limited than they used to be, so it seems paradoxical that I would be drawn to challenges like these instead of lighter fare (although, to be fair, I still play plenty of casual games on my phone).

I think what’s happening is that I now want everything I do to move me forward in some way, even my entertainment. But I also think about “moving forward” in a different way than I used to.

Instead of being narrowly achievement-focused, moving forward can now mean learning to relax, learning humility, learning patience, learning about someone else’s point of view, learning a new skill, learning whatever, just as long as I’m learning. And I think it’s pretty cool that there are an increasing number of games out there that are trying to teach me something.

Europe is dead. Long live Europe!

Driven by civil war, insurgency, poverty, and instability in their home countries, increasing numbers of migrants from all across the developing world are converging on Europe, often with heart-rending consequences.

European reactions to the accelerating mass migration have varied considerably. In Germany and Austria, both the government and the people are welcoming the newcomers with open arms, at least for the time being. Elsewhere, the reaction has ranged from distaste to outright xenophobia, especially in geographically vulnerable and economically depressed Eastern Europe.

“I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remarked recently. Orban and his center-right Fidesz Party are under pressure from the ultranationalists on his right flank, who have been, shall we say, somewhat more emphatic in their rejection of the refugees.

Europe has never been an island.

This is a historically myopic attitude. Hungary–much like France and England–is itself named after a conquering band of migrants that overwhelmed the borders of a no-longer-relevant state and decided to stick around for a thousand years. As is so often the case, the people that are claiming to be “native Hungarians” have more in common with the people they deem outsiders than they probably realize.

Looking to the future rather than the past, it’s clear enough that ethnic nationalism in Europe, while politically resurgent, is built upon an interesting paradox: the two pillars of the faith, ethnic solidarity and national power, now militate against one another.

Ultranationalists like Anders Breivik argue that a purely white, Christian Europe would be a resurgent Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth. The demographic data indicate that such a Europe would wither into total economic and political irrelevance within a few generations.

The EU-wide fertility rate now stands at 1.55, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Population loss creates a vicious economic feedback cycle: the rapidly aging population requires an increasing share of resources that younger people struggle to replace, leading to stagnation.

At this point, those same young people, sick of sky-high unemployment and governments that favor the interests of pensioners over their own, emigrate to greener pastures in the developing world, reinforcing the death spiral. The worst-afflicted countries could quite literally disappear from the map over the course of the 21st century if things don’t change.

As of 2015, the Germans have snatched the low birthrate crown from ultra-geriatric Japan, where engineers are starting to replace all those missing babies with androids. But Germany also enjoys the luxury of having Europe’s largest and most productive workforce, meaning it has more time on the clock than most other countries in a similar demographic position.

More importantly, ordinary Germans seem to be much more receptive to welcoming immigrants and refugees than other European voters, perhaps due to the country’s unique historical circumstances.

As I see it, European states have three basic choices at this point: maintaining the status quo, going ultranationalist, or accepting the reality of mass emigration and facilitating it. The first choice is really no choice at all; it will only delay the incidence of one of the other two paths until those states no longer have the resources to exert any control over the process.

The second option, which Putin has experimented with and could spread in Eastern Europe, involves invoking an existential national threat–namely the specter of being overrun by barbarian hordes–to make closing the borders and raising the birthrate a patriotic duty. This was a linchpin of Hitler’s domestic policy, and fits into a larger program of militarization and authoritarian governance. I can’t imagine that any country adopting this direction could stay in the European Union for long.

The third option is risky and politically gut-wrenching. It’s also Europe’s best chance for long-run prosperity. The European states that are most open to immigration will reap major economic benefits as time goes on, and not just from an improvement in demographic fundamentals. Many of the refugees fleeing instability along the European perimeter were middle-class, skilled professionals in their own countries who can add value in their new homes. The data support the notion that immigration tends to boost economic growth.

That being said, Europeans have every right to be concerned about the short-run economic costs of absorbing and supporting huge numbers of refugees from crisis-hit areas. This is surely not going to be a one-time deal, especially given the probable future impact of climate change on many developing countries.

On top of that, Europeans are worried about the cultural impact of the newcomers. Fears of sharia law being implemented across a newly transformed “Eurabia” are risible–Muslims are currently slated to make up less than 8% of the continent’s population by 2030. But the migration crisis does put considerable pressure on the hyphen between “nation” and “state.” Europe and its migrants will exert reciprocal change on one another. The core issue is where the balance is ultimately going to fall three or four generations down the line.

The “native Europeans” suspect that this bargain is a Faustian one that will sacrifice the nation in order to save the state. To some extent, they are correct. Germany, France, the UK, and many other European countries will be significantly less Caucasian in 2050 than they are today. Germany might have a Turkish- or Syrian-German Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the House of Windsor will marry a person of British Asian extraction.

But do we really think that Europe will be any less “European” then than it is now? I don’t. Like most migrants, today’s refugees primarily seek a higher standard of living and more opportunities for their children–and such opportunities are most quickly located by assimilating. Most are completely disinterested in turning Berlin into Damascus or Paris into Tangier.

Thus, the best way to forge a “European” future for Europe is simply to turn these people into Europeans as quickly as possible. Get them housing and jobs and put their children in school. Invest in the necessary facilities. It will be worth it.

The fact is that the Europe of the “native Europeans” had effectively signed its own death warrant well before the advent of the crisis. And it is also a fact that every crisis conceals an opportunity. Let’s hope that Europe’s leadership and people end up seeing it that way too.

On Borders and the Islamic State

Ever since I picked my dissertation back up in January after a year and a half of near-total inattention, I’ve tried to get back into the academic mindset by thinking about the security situation a bit. While I would have preferred that world peace had broken out in the interim and left me with nothing to write about, warfare is a depressingly consistent feature of international politics. That goes double for certain unlucky parts of the world, like any country sharing a border with Russia that isn’t China, or the whole of Western Asia, where borders in general now seem less meaningful than ever (despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts).

I’ve always been interested in international borders. Two of my favorite books growing up were the New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and the New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, both compiled by Dr. Colin Mcevedy, who his 2005 obituary described as a “psychiatrist, historian, demographer and polymath” (in other words, the real-world version of Hari Seldon). You could pick one of these atlases up, thumb it like a novelty flipbook, and watch an animation of hundreds to thousands of years of human history, seen from near-Earth orbit, play out in a few seconds. Here’s a version on YouTube if you need help visualizing this.

Watching these things, one realizes that borders are what states make of them. That is to say, a stable border exists where two neighboring countries agree to put it. When one or both parties disagree, war tends to follow–or at least it did up until the latter part of the 20th century, when the United States and the Soviet Union, and then the United States alone, decided to spend its blood, treasure, and international credibility freezing most borders between countries in place.

In 2015, that rule is looking less like a permanent change and more like a blip on human history’s radar. Last year, the borders of Ukrainian Crimea vanished into Russia with a whiff of artillery fire, followed by a quick referendum. Meanwhile, certain disputed islands in the South China Sea currently enjoy six sets of borders at once, which might be some kind of modern record and frankly seems unsustainable.

But the real action is taking place in the countries formerly known as Iraq and Syria. These states are being steadily consumed from the inside out by the Islamic State, a virulent political cancer that is abhorrent and fascinating in equal measure.

Dreamers gonna dream.

The Islamic State doesn’t fit neatly into any of the analytical categories we use to describe political entities and substate actors in the 21st century. For instance, it is a successor organization to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it uses the media to broadcast its atrocities like a terrorist group would. But it does other stuff that terrorist groups don’t typically do, in that it controls and governs large amounts of territory and is not primarily interested in extorting political concessions from a government.

It looks like a classic insurgency from some angles, particularly in its use of infiltration tactics and its steady efforts to take territory away from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, but it is also spending its resources cleansing the areas under its control of ethnic and religious undesirables, and it is replacing those it has killed or expelled with homesteading families from all over the world. It acts like a nation-state by fielding a regular army and governing the areas under its control–collecting taxes and providing services–but has also declared itself the center of a supranational caliphate which will eventually dissolve all international borders in the areas under its control:

“Nothing remains after the elimination of these borders, the borders of humiliation, and the breaking of the idol, the idol of nationalism, except the caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.”

– Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State spokesman

This is a fascinating quote on several levels. First, we have the reestablishment of the caliphate–and not just any old caliphate, like the Ummayad, the Abbasid, or the Ottoman varieties, all of which came to resemble secular imperial administrations to some degree–but the original article, the Rashidun, which was led by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently analyzed the religious scholarship of the Islamic State’s leadership, concluding that the June 2014 declaration of a new caliphate was meant to initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. The Islamic version of the apocalypse involves the armies of the righteous getting the tar kicked out of them by the Antichrist right up to the very last minute, when Jesus returns to Earth and leads them to final victory.

With this in mind, the Islamic State’s many gross provocations come into sharper focus. They’re following a script that requires them to turn literally the entire non-Salafi non-Sunni Muslim world into deadly enemies.

Needless to say, that is highly atypical (although not unprecedented) behavior for a state. So is the obsession with erasing the borders of the Middle East. Most irredentist regimes (such as Revolutionary Iran) are focused on redrawing borders and then fortifying them. Not the Islamic State. Al-Adnani’s references to “the borders of humiliation” and “the idol of nationalism” refer not only to the former colonial powers of the West, but the Westphalian system of nation-states itself. The degree to which the Islamic State’s ideology is actually Medieval in origin is debatable, but at least in this respect, the appellation fits.

It’s important to remember that the establishment and spread of the nation-state, along with the parceling out of the Earth’s territory into 200-odd sets of borders delineating who controls what, is a relatively recent phenomenon. A thousand or more years in the past, temporal and spiritual powers were conflated in both the Muslim world and in Christendom, and borders meant significantly less than they do now. Politics was characterized by multiple overlapping spheres of authority: the emperor or the king, the pope, and various flavors of liege lord in Europe, and the caliph, the emir, the city, and the tribe across the Middle East and North Africa. The people living on a single piece of territory might owe allegiance to several parallel organizations or hierarchies at the same time. Needless to say, it was a confusing and dangerous time to be alive.

The Islamic State is not at interested in restoring this kind of political system. It hopes to establish a highly centralized, totalitarian theocracy. But when you look at places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, or Afghanistan–places where the state and its borders mean little, and the new caliphate and its allies have established a foothold–the facts on the ground spell out a similar kind of liminal space. It’s not quite anarchy, but it certainly isn’t hierarchy, either.

I very much doubt that the Islamic State will be able to erase the borders of the Middle East and reestablish the classical caliphate. However, I don’t think that the international community is going to be able to get rid of it very easily, either. The ideal behind it is powerful, it has romantic appeal, and it is loose in the wilds of the Internet. Although the meme resonates with only a very small fraction of Muslims globally, that will be enough to keep it alive longer than we might think.

The real risk is not that the Islamic State will explode. It is that it will persist indefinitely, allowing that small fraction a chance to tick upwards year by year. If it lasts another five years, or ten, how many people will be joining its ranks at that point? These guys aren’t in a rush. They’re making themselves comfortable and settling in for the long haul.

I am generally in favor of selective engagement when it comes to grand strategy, but when it comes to the Islamic State, I don’t think the United States can afford to wait. We, our allies, and as many of the nation-states of the Middle East as possible should act now, with overwhelming force, to strangle this particularly ugly baby in its crib.

Literacy

I’m about two months into learning how to develop iOS applications, and I think I’ve located the key to consumer software engineering (not that I am even close to being good at it, mind you).

It’s not mathematics. In fact, unless you are developing a brand-new machine learning algorithm, math seems to have very little use in commercial software development.

It’s not facility with complex systems, although an ability to visualize interdependent relationships between components helps when laying out models and tracking down bugs.

It’s reading. Competent software engineering ultimately boils down to reading.

I should be thrilled by this realization, because I’m good at reading. I can plow through any kind of fiction at warp speed, and I’m handy with expository material too, whether journalistic or academic in flavor. I’ve been a professional researcher of one form or another for a long time.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of reading I’m used to. This is technical reading. And it’s freaking difficult.

By way of explanation, good consumer software engineering seems to boil down to these three requirements, in order of importance:

  1. Build a product that works as intended,
  2. And will continue to work indefinitely,
  3. As quickly and cheaply as possible.

Notice what’s not on the list.

Build something that works flawlessly at release? Always nice if you can do it, but not likely and not really expected, either. Build everything yourself from scratch? That takes way too long. Build additional features on top of what’s strictly required? Not unless you come in early and under budget. Find a new, more elegant way to solve a problem someone else has already solved? Fixing stuff that isn’t broken is a cardinal sin.

Consumer software engineering is the art of determining which preexisting components you need, locating them, and then combining them in the right wayAnd from what I’ve seen so far, there are many, many excellent components out there just waiting for someone to grab them off the shelf and reassemble them into a billion-dollar product.

Other engineers, computer scientists, coders and tinkerers have been spitting out solutions to difficult problems for decades, both commercially and in the Open Source community. One excellent example I’m learning about right now is Parse, which is a pretty damn solid cloud database solution you can plug right into and start using for free. Someone could very easily use it to build the next Facebook or Instagram in about a week… provided they had the idea for the next Facebook or Instagram (which is an entirely different kettle of fish).

The point is that these building blocks effectively form layers of abstraction that should eliminate entire classes of problem from an engineer’s purview. But again, in order for you to gain access to these amazing shortcuts, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for. Then you’ve got to find it. Then you’ve got to figure out how the hell it works!

And that’s where all the reading–and a fair amount of writing–comes in. Now that I’ve gotten through the nuts and bolts of Objective-C and the basic iOS components, and I’m moving into building real products, I’m spending about 30% of my time on Google and Stack Overflow merely trying to describe the problems I’m trying to solve, in order find the right off-the-shelf tool.  And once I find those tools, another 40% of my time is going to reading documentation and forum posts to try to flatten my learning curve. I spend the remaining 30% trying various things in code.

This is nasty, frustrating, smash-mouth research, conducted in a technical vernacular that I barely understand. The sources are written by people who, to put it charitably, do not necessarily specialize in communication and may not be very sympathetic to beginners. Effective examples are few and far between.

So it’s pretty weird to find myself enjoying it.

Weirdly, I don’t seem to mind banging away on a single small problem for hours at a time, rooting through manuals and bugging people on forums. Because when the damn thing finally works, it’s like I’ve found the Philosopher’s Stone, and I get to enjoy that feeling for five minutes until it’s time to move on to the next intractable issue.

I’ll tell you this much, though. If I ever get to the point where I’m designing my own tools and components for others to use, I’m going to make sure a fourth-grader can read my documentation.

On The Fear Of Sucking, And What To Do About It

I find it too easy to stick to activities that I’m already good at. It’s pleasurable to complete a task and check an item off a list. I get a nice little dopamine fix. My routine is strengthened, and there is comfort in routine. I get fractionally better at whatever it is I’ve just done. And, most importantly, I never have to suck at or struggle through anything. My illusion of mastery over my own little corner of the universe is maintained.

I could dwell forever in my self-created Era of Good Feelings… if I could just ignore the following irritating thoughts.

  • I don’t know whether the stuff I’m good at actually maximizes my enjoyment.
  • There’s a chance that I might be much better at something I haven’t tried.
  • I can’t say that the force that keeps me from doing new things–which are also things I’m comparatively not good at–is rational.

If I were to come at the question of whether or not I should try something new rationally, I would try to measure the opportunity cost of switching tracks against the potential awesomeness of the new venture, weighted by my probability of success.

But that’s not actually what I do. Instead, my intense dislike of sucking at something new regularly trumps the possibility that I might discover something excellent. So I never start, or I quit at the first sign of trouble, and that pisses me off. I hate feeling like I might be stuck in a local maxima simply because I’m scared to feel bad.

I don’t think I’m the only one who acts this way. Starting in childhood, we are carefully observed to determine where our natural talents lie. Those talents are cultivated over time by a number of powerful external feedback mechanisms — parents, friends, schools, the job market. They are turned into economically useful skills, and we learn to rely on them. Sooner or later, this feedback loop is internalized and we become our own cultivators. But we may not have very good control over the mechanism.

Imagine that a rabbit in a lab learns to press a button and receive a reward. The lab’s scientists can condition the rabbit however they like, using a carrot here, an electric shock there. But when the scientists leave, will the rabbit learn to reconfigure the experimental apparatus and teach itself new tricks? Or will it go on pressing the same buttons in the same order to receive the same reward?

As human beings, we have the tools we need to assume command. We can do a lot better than that poor imaginary rabbit… it just doesn’t happen automatically. In particular, we have to power through the negative feedback: repeated failure, frustration, self-doubt, embarrassment, feeling like a total idiot, and all the rest of it.

It’s freaking hard, especially when I know that I can go right back to doing what I’m good at and get the warm fuzzies that I love. But the potential rewards are too precious to leave aside.

So, what exactly am I sucking at in 2015?

  1. Building iPhone apps / software engineering. I’ve been someone who can come up with an idea and describe what it should look like–sometimes in considerable written detail–but I’ve never, ever been the guy who builds it. That is going to change. I’m starting with iOS because it’s easy to commercialize, it’s pretty self-contained from a technology standpoint, and going mobile-first just seems like a no brainer at this point. I’m aiming to have my first production app out by early April. Judging by how difficult this has been so far, that schedule might be a little optimistic. Suckage rating: Three roombas and a clogged milkshake straw.
  2. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I like jiu-jitsu because it allows me to satisfy my lust for combat without getting punched in the face. I dislike it because, as a beginner, I have roughly the same chances against an experienced practitioner as Panama did against the US. My understanding is that this utter helplessness lasts between six and twelve months, depending on one’s spatial aptitude and flexibility (average and horrible, in my case). In other words, I may have found a really, really good way to practice sucking. Suckage rating: Congress.
  3. Electronic music. That’s right, I’ve started producing bad electronic music! I’m using a Maschine Mikro, a Korg NanoKey 2, and the seemingly endless amounts of IDM, chiptune, shoegaze, ambient, dubstep, and who knows what else lodged in my brain. Check me out on SoundCloud, yo. Suckage rating: Interstellar space.

ApplyMap and ApplyFacts

I’ve been working full-time on a new startup, ApplyMap, for about the last nine months now.

This, my friends, is the ApplyMap Mortarboard.

This, my friends, is the ApplyMap Mortarboard.

<elevatorpitch>In a nutshell, ApplyMap is a site that helps high school students decide where to apply to college. They give us their grades, their test scores, their school preferences, and how many applications they’re willing to fill out, and our algorithm returns the best possible mix of schools for them to apply to, including dream, reach, match, and safety schools. It’s not unlike the advice you’d get after spending an hour with a good college counselor or consultant, except it’s online, it’s free, and it takes less than five minutes.</elevatorpitch>

We’re up to all kinds of exciting things at ApplyMap, some of which will be called out right here on my personal site. Today I’m plugging ApplyFacts, our analytics blog. The first post, which I just put up, explains what we’re doing writing a blog when our job is to do math and help kids–especially kids from underserved communities–get into college. Hint: good science is only good when non-scientists hear about it!

Check it out and spread the word.

 

5 x 100: Taming the Fire Hose

Hi, my name’s Steve, and I play a lot of video games. In the past, I did this professionally, either as a journalist or for market research purposes. Now I do it because I built a Steam Box, and the Humble Bundle, where you can literally pay anything you want to download games by the half-dozen, has its hooks in me. There is no going back after crossing this threshold; there is only the next bundle, and the one after that. And the insidious Steam sales offering you last year’s Triple-A titles at a 75% discount. And of course there’s also the App Store, and PlayStation Plus, where games are so cheap and plentiful, or so heavily amortized, that they are effectively free. The flow of novelty is both intoxicating and addictive.

So you see, if I’m not careful, I will end up spending more time researching and downloading games than I do playing them. This blog post, which I hope to turn into a semi-regular feature in the new year, is intended to make me be careful. I am limiting myself to playing ten games at a time, while forcing myself to write about five. The thinking is that I will actually have to savor the games I’m playing, instead of simply burning through them on a mad search for the next high. I’ll write 100 words about each game at most. Economy of language leads to disciplined thought.

XCOM: Enemy Within

This year’s XCOM simply provides more of what made last year’s Enemy Unknown a great design, a perfect fusion of high-level management with detailed tactics. The new stuff–and there is a lot of new content–is built on top of the last game. This is an achievement akin to painting the Mona Lisa into the Last Supper. Play it on Classic or Hardcore difficulty in Ironman mode, so if you screw up a mission, it stays screwed up. The stakes need to be high for the game to work its magic to the fullest.

rymdkapsel

Games do not get more Northern European than this. rymdkapsel is a deep-space iOS strategy game engineered for maximum efficiency. The space station is made from pastel Tetris blocks, the characters are white rectanges, the controls only rarely require a second thumb, the music is a focused drone in the background, and the goal is to stay alive. These ingredients combine into a game that holds my attention for hours at a time, because figuring out which station modules to build where, and when, is a very interesting challenge.

The Binding of Isaac

This is a top-down roguelike adventure in the style of the original Legend of Zelda. Not very remarkable. The style in which it is executed, however, is… unique. The hero’s tears, born from extreme psychological traumas detailed in short cartoons, are weaponized. His enemies disgust on a visceral level–obese waddlers that belch flies, children with their eyes gouged out, bags of pus and filth that explode into blood. And it’s fun, even though playing it makes you feel dirty. This was made a small team of deviants who happen to know something about games.

Metro: Last Light

A post-apocalyptic FPS made by, for, and about Russians. It’s set in the subway beneath a thoroughly nuked Moscow, where survivors have split into gangs organized by territory. Contemporary Russian politics echoes through the tunnels, where neo-nazis, communists and nationalists kill each other with jury-rigged weapons. The air on the surface is poisonous, requiring the use of a gas mask that obscures your vision and doubles the claustrophobia. Russkies are survivors, though, and there is an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout. It’s worth playing.

Antichamber

In Antichamber, you dash around inside an M.C. Escher print. The game is series of optical illusions and oblique verbal clues to puzzle through before a timer runs out. The exit, inaccessible to the novice, is cruelly situated near the origin point, where you will be repeatedly deposited after failing a challenge. All of this is more intriguing than frustrating, at least from my perspective, because I rarely encounter a game that so openly jerks players around and messes with their heads.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: North Korea Edition

KJU

Kim Jong Un’s taking East Asia on a roller coaster ride.

Just how crazy is this Kim Jong Un guy, anyway? In the week or so since KJU had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, branded a traitor, executed, and expunged from official existence, I’ve read several articles describing him as a dangerous enfant terrible, and perhaps even a “modern Caligula.”

That notoriously depraved Caesar was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, and some voices in our foreign policy establishment would like to see the U.S. expedite this process. This argument comes in two basic flavors. The first is that we should try to get rid of KJU because he’s a really bad guy who commits crimes against humanity and flouts international laws, especially the nonproliferation regime, with impunity. The second is that KJU’s behavior has been so erratic that he cannot be trusted to make decisions that are consistent with the survival of his regime. In other words, he may not deterrable, which could be a big problem given the DPRK’s rudimentary-but-still-plenty-fissile nuclear stockpile.

Neither flavor tastes good, in my opinion. KJU is indeed a monstrous individual who deserves to be locked up in The Hague for 999 consecutive life terms, and so were the two previous Dear Leaders. Luckily, the state of North Korea isn’t a useful vehicle for causing serious international security trouble, because those three guys have driven it like a budget rental for 60-odd years.

Consequently, most of the nasty stuff the DPRK does on the international scene amounts to small-time mafioso crap: drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal weapons sales, all done to keep the lights on in Pyongyang (12 hours a day). Peddling nuclear and missile technologies to the highest bidder is somewhat more serious… but what do the North Koreans actually have to sell, anyway? DPRK is very unlikely to sell a completed weapon or fissile material–the risks associated with that transfer are practically insurmountable, given how often DPRK’s weapons shipments are intercepted–and the other states in the market for nuclear weapons can likely do better with indigenous programs.

In short, DPRK is effectively contained, leaving the irrationality argument. The thing is that KJU’s purge doesn’t seem irrational to me. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was able to eliminate his uncle, an experienced and very well-connected politician who was close to the levers of power, suggesting both animal cunning and a knack for self-preservation, not madness. For all we know, KJU may not have lasted another year if he hadn’t acted when and how he did. Whatever the case, this kind of action isn’t unprecedented in new totalitarian governments.

I’ll end with this final thought: we don’t actually want KJU’s regime to collapse, and neither does South Korea, believe it or not. Nothing KJU has done to this point is as unpredictable as what could occur in the wake of a North Korean civil war or coup. And if you think reintegrating Germany was difficult for the Germans, just imagine what the South Koreans will have to do to bring 25 million of their starving Northern cousins up to speed.

I think the best way to get rid of KJU and his regime, ultimately, is to sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War, depriving the DPRK of its main excuse for oppressing its people so horribly under “wartime conditions.” From there, let the Sunshine Policy do the work, and maybe we get reunification several decades down the road.

Relaunch!

I’ve been no good at keeping this blog updated regularly… but I have a good excuse.

Initially, this was intended to be my professional grad student blog. My plan was to write exclusively about academic subjects, with an eye on boosting my web profile as I headed towards the job market.

The problem was that I had trouble identifying academic topics I felt like blogging about. Not because there was any lack of interesting developments in the real world, or of cool work being done in my academic areas of interest. I simply found that I would rather write about all the other stuff I like, such as:

  • Startups, entrepreneurship, the accelerating creation and destruction of markets.
  • My own projects, such as the new startup I’m working on, ApplyMap.
  • New developments in media, interactive entertainment, and games of all kinds.
  • Awesome books: fiction, nonfiction, prose, how-to.
  • Maybe I’ll pretend like it’s 2010 and do some games journalism.
  • Pro sports and sports analytics, which I’m really getting into, with a special focus on the San Francisco 49ers, the Sacramento Kings, and combat sports.
  • Not-so-pro sports, meaning all the sports and other athletic endeavors I injure myself participating in.
  • Current events.
  • Coding. I’m learning Objective-C and backend web stuff (JS, PHP, MySQL).
  • Okay, fine, academics. political science, development econ, complexity science, computational modeling. I may be on leave from UCLA right now to work on the startup, but I still love this stuff.
  • Food.
  • TBD.

So, with that in mind, I’m officially rechristening, repurposing, and relaunching this blog, just in time for 2014. Given this new list, I’d better be able to keep a regular posting schedule, because I’m out of excuses.

America As Terror Victim, Then and Now

After 11+ years without an attack (barring several near misses, and perhaps controversially not including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting), yesterday’s carnage at the Boston Marathon is a tragic reminder of our civilian population’s vulnerability to terrorism. I briefly lived in Boston (okay, Medford, but it was on the Red Line) after college. While I can’t say I cared much for the weather or the freeways, I thought it was a great town, especially for American history buffs and higher education addicts. And when it comes to looking a threat straight in the eye and telling it to EFF OFF OUTTA HEAH, Bostonians are rivaled only by New Yorkers, who are their rivals in everything.

Maybe this is because it’s still early days, or because the scale of the strike hardly compares–or simply because I haven’t had much time to check which brands of hysterical nonsense the network news has been peddling–but I’ve noticed a major tonal difference in the coverage of, and reactions to, the attacks this time around. Basically, September 11th scared us senseless. Boston has deeply saddened us and reminded us that the world can be a terrible place, but I don’t think we’re scared.

The bombers didn’t succeed in terrifying us. We’re reacting deliberately, not irrationally. People are going about their business. The stock market went down somewhat but it was heading that direction anyway. The rhetoric coming out of Washington is, with a few exceptions, level-headed, responsible and mature. The media, at least on the web, seems to be tamping down on irresponsible rumors and innuendo. We’re all waiting for the facts to come out.

And that is where we can find some solace in the heart of this disaster. It may take time, but we’re going to find out exactly what happened in Boston, and that means that the people responsible for it are on borrowed time. When we place our faith in judicial procedure and the rule of law, allowing the state to do what it does best, the vast majority of the world stands with us. If we treat terrorists as the criminals they are, instead of making them an unknowable, unbeatable existential threat, they lose power over us.

Another small point about terrorism in America: one could argue that we have actually endured multiple mass-casualty terrorist attacks since September 11th, most of which were perpetrated by lone gunmen. Definitionally, terrorists are supposed to be working towards some political motive, and these mass shootings don’t fit that bill. On the other hand, if you examine some of the demands of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, they are as impossibly maximalist as Jared Loughner’s desire to end the government’s grammar-based mind control program. In any event, maybe we’ve been somewhat inured to the idea of essentially random mass carnage since we have been exposed to it so regularly in recent years.