Saturday, 22 February 2014

Reset, Not Recess: Why We Need Our Politicians to be Gamers

With apologies to Evgeny Morozov, my latest intellectual hero, I believe that technology really can save the world. I don't mean that in the bull-shitty tech-startup way that entrepreneurs always use; I'm not referring to Twitter's info-anarchism, or Facebook's nebulous goal of "making the world a better place" by connecting everybody, or Google's increasingly meaningless motto of "Don't be evil".

No, I'm referring to a very specific type of technology: our political class needs to play more videogames.

It might sound like I'm joking or being provocative, but this is a serious point. And it's not even about "connecting with the kids, man". It's about a specific way that playing videogames teaches you to view the world.

I come from one of the earliest generations to play videogames – my family had each of Nintendo's US-released consoles from the original NES to the GameCube, and every time I've moved to a new place one of my first actions has been to buy a new console, for gaming as well as DVD-viewing.

With nearly thirty years of videogame-playing affecting my brain, I think it's fair to say that my way of thinking is different from that of people who don't play at all, for better or for worse. Specifically, being intensely goal-oriented and knowing when to quit and start something over.

I don't mean that people who don't play videogames can't do either of those things. Rather, videogames are designed to reward those behaviors, so they're stronger in gamers, because those particular "muscles", if you will, get a lot more use.

As far as being goal-oriented, that's pretty self-explanatory. When you pick up a game, you're presented with a goal: get to the end of the level, kill the bad guy, save the princess. There are a bunch of cute things you can do along the way, like collect things or earn a certain number of points, but if you don't accomplish that main goal, you don't win.

It's easy to see how this applies to politics, especially in the US and especially now. The game has been subverted – instead of governing, the system rewards parties and individual politicians who disrupt their rivals' policies.

If you want to put this in economics terms, it looks like game theory to me, specifically the prisoner's dilemma – the system works if everybody works together, but falls apart when someone cheats, ie, performs an action that advantages them specifically while not necessarily bringing them closer to the actual conditions for winning. In practical terms, it means that politicians are rewarded more for jockeying against each other (and fundraising) than for governing, so they don't govern.

The other point, about quitting and starting over, is also valid here. Some games give you a limited amount of attempts to accomplish your goal – if you run out of attempts, you start from the beginning (or the last save point). Other games require actions to be taken in a certain sequence, and if you miss something important, you get to a point where you can't advance anymore. The thing to do in these cases is to start again and try again, applying the lessons learned from the first attempt.

There are a lot of areas in real life politics where we could stand to rip everything up and start again. The tax system in the US is the main one I'm thinking of here; not just in terms of how much everybody pays, but the whole system of credits and exemptions, and the way it's become something that you need to hire a professional to do. Another example of a system that would be completely different if we designed it from the ground up today is education, particularly for those in poorer areas. Foreign policy is another, particularly our presence in places like Afghanistan.

We don't need iterative change in these areas (to borrow another obnoxious term from the tech world), but a hard reset. There's something to be said for staying the course, but sometimes that means getting mired down in unnecessary infighting and holding onto outmoded notions. If our political leaders had sufficient clarity of vision (see my first point), they'd be able to see where to cut their losses.

So my solution is this: supply everyone in Congress with an Xbox (because I would hate to imagine the shitstorm if we gave them a foreign-made console), and get them to play for an hour a day during their numerous recesses and breaks. It can be Need for Speed, or the SIMs, or Assassin's Creed – it doesn't matter, as long as they learn to focus on what's important again, and to try something new when the same old shit isn't working.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Balancing Conflicting Goals

Like everybody, I've got a bunch of different priorities pulling me in multiple directions - social life, dating, health & fitness, work, and hobbies, to be precise. It's been like this for the past several years, as I've gotten serious about, variously, dating, writing, running and slimming down.

But every once in a while it gets frustrating to try and balance all of these things, because some of them are actually in opposition to one another. For instance, I know that to meet more girls (and, hopefully, down the line, go on dates with them) I need to get out of the house and go where they are. At the same time, if I want to get my stories published, I need to actually block out more time to write them, but that means less time for going out. And so on.

I've heard it said that you can either be successful professionally or personally, but you can't have both areas of your life be perfect. I don't know if that's true or not, because there are plenty of anecdotal examples of both (and it depends on your definition of success, of course), but I try and conduct my life like it isn't. Although given a choice, I think becoming a successful writer just edges out personal satisfaction, if not by much.

One thing that helps is reminding myself that success in one area can actually help in other areas. Getting fitter, for example, would help in becoming a more attractive guy, for instance, while succeeding in getting published is also something that could help attract women (the kind who'd find that attractive, at any rate, but that's who I'm after). I suppose that's all a pretty long-winded way of saying that I've kind of de-emphasized dating, in favor of the other stuff.

One of the self-help books that I go back to from time to time is Goals!, by Brian Tracy, which looks into goal-setting, and how to do it successfully. He advocates regularly writing out a list of your goals in life, but also suggests looking at each and deciding which one, if you accomplished it, would have the greatest positive impact on your life. This is your major definite purpose.

To apply it to my own life, while meeting someone would be great, I don't think it would have as much of an impact on my life as selling a novel or a screenplay. Or to put it another way, publishing a novel would make it easier to meet a like-minded woman, but getting married and having kids would probably make it harder to set aside the time to write the novel or screen play.

(And yes, I'm aware of Elmore Leonard's advice to wake up at 5am and write for two hours at the start of every day. I tried it for a couple of months, and was miserable for every minute of it, not to mention not particularly productive. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, I want to be a writer so I don't have to get up in the morning.)

That understanding doesn't make my disappointment at continually failing to meet someone less keen, of course. And if I'm honest, sometimes it feels more like a rationalization of why I'm not as proactive as I'd like to be on the dating front. But it helps a little bit.

Although, now that Brian Tracy's gone and written his book about setting goals, I wish he (or somebody else - Tim Ferriss? Chris Hardwick?) would write one about balancing your various goals. That's one I'd devour in one sitting.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

How To Be a Good Person

So here's something that's been bugging me for a while:

A week or two ago, I found myself reading one of those silly lists of how to be productive, the kind that seems to be floating all over the internet these days. If it's not 5 things to stop doing with your money now, it's somebody's 10 rules of being a writer or something like that.

In this case, it was James Altucher's rules on how to become a Jedi, which are floating around the internet in various forms. A lot of it makes sense, but the thing that stuck with me, and that's forcing itself out of my head on a Sunday night (the other options were: how I feel I was a screwup in my 20s; racism; or the joys of my new Playstation 3), is Altucher's third point, "practice being good".

As he writes,

"Being a good, compassionate person is not something like “having two arms” or “being able to see”. It’s a quality we develop over years and thousands of hours of practice. Most people are not good people. In business, in art, in almost every “world” I’ve been in, most people I meet are pretty gray to black. It takes practice to be the person who is a source of compassion and honesty. Supposedly it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Unfortunately, most people spend 10,000 hours trying to be a jerk to others. If all you do is put in your 10,000 with small kindnesses, then the universe will return that many times over."
I admit I got stuck on that point he makes about most people not being good people - calling most people you meet "pretty gray to black" is kinda harsh, to my mind. Maybe I'm naive, but I always figured most people were fundamentally okay - I've encountered a number of shitty people, and even been friends with some for a while, at least until I figured out they were shitty. But I actually think I'm thrust into close proximity with fewer assholes now that I'm grown up than when I was in school.

At any rate, that post got me thinking. Of course everybody thinks they're a decent human being. For some people, it's true; for others, it might not be true, but the people around them think it is.

But how do we know we're good people, if we never do anything good? I don't know if most people spend their time trying to be jerks to others - it's just that in the course of doing our own thing, we can piss other people off (just ask any of the folks driving behind me as I drove into and out of San Francisco yesterday; I'm still figuring out the city's road network).

On the other hand, how much time do people actually spend trying to do good stuff? I don't think many people make time for it, what with their jobs, their families, their significant others and catching up on all the TV that we're supposed to watch to avoid having stuff spoiled for us.

I wouldn't say this is a call to arms for religious folks. On the contrary, what comes to mind as I write this post is Tad Williams's book The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which is all about angels who act as "advocates" for human souls. When a person dies, Williams's protagonist, Bobby Dollar, has to enumerate the good things they did in life, as a balance to the list of bad things drawn up by his counterparts from Hell. About midway through the book, Bobby has to defend a frat boy who, while he was never a braying sociopath as depicted in film or TV, was certainly a shitty person. I don't believe it's a spoiler to say Bobby loses that case and the frat boy goes to Hell.

Tad Williams, as far as I've read, is an atheist (which is one of the things that made that book so fascinating for me). But he presents a reality where the balance of good to shitty things that we do really does matter, harking back to James Altucher's 10,000 hours of being a jerk. While I don't believe my giving some homeless guy a dollar and giving another driver the finger will be tallied against me when (if) I die, I do think both actions have some kind of weight in the here and now. And I think acting like an asshole creates some kind of mental fog that affects people who witness my assholish behavior.

I might be too sensitive. But having witnessed other people's shitty behavior - one or two former flatmates spring to mind - I feel justified in saying that telling yourself you're a good person isn't enough to actually be a good person. James Altucher has it right when he says you should practice it - as well as when he says to do it through 10,000 small kindnesses. It may not be enough to feed or clothe the poor, but if everybody just tried to be a little less shitty to friends, family and strangers, we all would be better off.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Yes, It Really Is OK to Use Math to Get Dates

I was one of many lovelorn nerds who eagerly read Wired's article the other week about Christopher McKinley, the PhD student who used his math and programming skills to turn OKCupid's algorithms to his advantage. I've been on the site for a while, and I can candidly say it's never been my best source for dates - but figuring out a way to make it work better struck me as worth investigating. So after I read the article, I also picked up McKinley's e-book, Optimizing Cupid, to see what he had to say.

So naturally, I was interested to see dating coach Dr Nerdlove post about the article on his blog, as well as linking to an article on Buzzfeed that attacked the whole concept of what McKinley was doing.

Generally I don't really like Buzzfeed. It feels (is) a lot like a group of 24-year-olds loudly trumpeting their opinions as heaven-sent facts - if you subtracted 5-10 years from their ages they'd probably be Bieber fans, with all the hysteria and self-righteousness that entails. And this article didn't really change my opinion of them, for a number of reasons.

First, the author defaulted to the argument that McKinley was a creepy PUA type for what he did, the implication being that he was misrepresenting himself somehow. Admittedly, the thing about creating a bunch of bots to collect information about all of LA's female OKCupid profiles might give reasonable people pause. But the whole tone of the Buzzfeed article seems to be schoolmarmish horror that someone attempted to improve his odds of meeting someone on the site by means other than browsing at random, firing off a message and waiting in vain for a response.

Frankly, that can be soul-destroying - wading through ten or twenty profiles in one night that all talk about how much they love traveling, red wine and curling up on the sofa to watch a cheesy film (or insert your favorite cliches for male profiles). So figuring out a better way of putting people in front of each other who should click in real life according to OKCupid seems like common sense - why continue playing a game that's rigged against you?

The article also appears to misunderstand the difference between dating and meeting someone from the internet face to face. This is possibly because Wired's coverage ran with the headline that McKinley went on almost 90 "dates" in two months. McKinley himself characterizes those as "meetups" rather than dates, which seems logical to me, especially because very few, if any, of those meetups had a sequel. In the book McKinley is at pains to point out that the real test of whether you click is when you meet face to face - hardly the words of a PUA guru out to, essentially, hypnotize girls into blowing him.

But that's one of the other things that bothered me about Buzzfeed's response. It bespeaks some kind of visceral reaction of distaste to that headline (90 dates in two months! Sometimes, "classily", 2 dates per day!), but also no real effort to go beyond the headline and see what the real story is. Given that Buzzfeed appears to have set itself up as some kind of internet gadfly, did they really have to run a story within 48 hours of the Wired article? If you're going to comment on things happening on the internet, rather than just reporting on them, then find out what the real story is.

The other thing that bothered me about this response was how much it reminded me of that Gawker/Gizmodo article from a few years ago where one of the writers went on a date with someone who turned out to be a nerd. Specifically, a hardcore Magic: The Gathering player, which caused her to back away in horror (frankly, she'd have won my sympathy if she'd just talked about the awfulness of being taken to a stage play based on Jeffrey Dahmer's life).

What both articles seem to have in common is this idea that if you aren't "normal", and into "normal" things, like hedge funds and football and whatever else grown-ups are supposed to be into these days, or you try to find dates online in a non-traditional manner, then you're some kind of pariah. I'm not saying the woman from Gizmodo should have let the guy get into her pants - chemistry is chemistry, and if you're not feeling it, that's totally legitimate. And as I said above, the Buzzfeed writer's article read like an ex post facto justification why she felt such distaste for McKinley's story; I can't really argue with her gut reaction.

But, you know, seek first to understand, as Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People recommends. Things that seem odd or distasteful at first glance aren't necessarily so once you've really looked into them. If Buzzfeed can't do that, then they should stick to making stupid lists of things people say on Twitter (and possibly informing the people being quoted).