Books: February 2017

Ryan Holiday has a great monthly-ish reading list. If you don’t already subscribe, stop what you’re doing and click. I’m going to try to get at least one idea from each book down and link them between them in as interesting ways. Maybe helpful for you. Maybe not. Remembrance for future connectivity is the goal.

This month’s theme music: My Favorite Things by John Coltrane

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural by James Randi
First on Scott’s Persuasion Reading list, and a super quick read. People can believe anything. People can convince people of anything. Superstition is built into us at a foundational level which we simply can’t shake. Surely an examination of nearly anything on, say, Facebook would convince you of that, yet you simply don’t realize how much you accept on faith as well. Something things just flow in. It’s your job to police the filter, and toss out what should be in your brain. An easier task said than done.

They Got It Wrong: History: All the Facts that Turned Out to be Myths by Emma Marriot
Second on Scott’s list, and another quick read. As in the first, not hugely substantiated, but consistent with facts and direct experiences that I’ve had actually going to the places mentioned. Touchiest one was related to the Holocaust which broadens ones understanding of where, and at who’s hand, most Jews died. Historical stories are created out of whole cloth to convince people, not unlike superstitions.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
I’ve tried to read this book, and stopped several times. It’s brutal. The audiobook is the way to go. Primary Source account of concentration camps as a Jew from an astute observer. You simply cannot understand what the human organism is able to normalize until you make it through to the end of this book. A much more serious book than They Got It Wrong, which serves as an interesting contrast as events occur completely outside of Viktor Frankl’s sphere. That fact by no means diminishes either the historical facts (as much as history can be factual), nor Viktor Frankl’s experiences and insights. There’s more to this book and I need to work my way through it again.

God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams
A record of a two conversations which, like links in a chain, drive home a series of thoughts about who we are as humans and where we’re going, even if we’re not paying attention to the fact that we’re moving at all. Fertile idea generator. As an example, here’s the one that’s stuck with me (and the riskiest of the lot): Religion is how we, as a species, program our System 1, while suppressing our System 2 as necessary, for the persistence of our tribe. When we choose a religion, even if it’s no-religion (i.e. atheism), that’s because our System 1 accepts it that programming, and rigs our System 2 to think it’s our own idea – our own “free will.”

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
A subtle magic trick in the form of a historical expose of Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen which, along the way, causes the listener to internalize precepts of Zen in ways. There’s persuasion going on here in a major way, but I doubt you’d register it. The only way I spotted it was to notice how my thoughts changed in response to events. Granted this is my third time through the work, and I doubt that the written version would have had any effect at all. Going deeper on the why of the Koan teaching strategy lead to the insight about God’s Debris above.

The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawne Coyne & Steven Pressfield
If you work with stories, this is a book for you. Full stop. As you read, read the other non-fiction books he references, in particular Story by Robert McKee. How to disassemble a story, look at the component pieces, and verify proper functioning. Highly analytical. A way to generate feedback about the quality of your work. Ideas connect with Mastery by Robert Greene. It’s an example of how to rigorously define compliance with, and aberration from, expectations and conventions of written stories. Greene uses John Coltrane’s jazz as an example, this is the analog for writing.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels and One Story by Douglas Adams
I finally get it. I don’t like this book. I understand why now. You see, it wasn’t written as a single work at a single time, instead it’s been reworked and rewritten at least six times, across many mediums, to the point where it no longer feels like a book to me. It’s meticulously crafted watch. Everything, absolutely everything, has been polished, stripped, and reworked to the point where the whole book ticks along with too much rigidity and perfection for me to find it funny and entertaining. There’s simply no surprise.

Going Rogue (Spells, Swords, & Stealth) (Volume 3) by Drew Hayes
This series hits it’s stride in book three. There’s three ensembles of actors in the story and the first two books in the series suffered, because the balance of focus wasn’t sufficient. Drew Hayes gets it right in this book. This was the first fictional work that I applied concpets from Story Grid to as I was reading. This is an example of where the first two books really do need to be reworked, as it’s a long slog for readers to get to this point and truly enjoy the aggregate work. The only reason why I made it as far as I did was because I used to DM Dungeons & Dragon games, not a large group of people, and a main character is a Dungeon Master.  Yeah, I know I just said what I said about Hitchhiker’s, so I suppose the trick is doing it in a less than perfect way.

Misc
Working my way back through Mastery by Robert Greene, and Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kehneman. I really do love re-reading books with complexity, because there’s so much to gain. If you didn’t get the System 1/2 reference from above, read Thinking Fast & Slow. Mandatory. I’m also tracking down Scott Adams’ Persuasion Reading list, so more from that next month.

Cheers!

On the Bulletproof Diet

Connections and Possibilities

The Bulletproof Diet has the world’s best ambassador – coffee. Not just any old coffee, but the best coffee I’ve ever had. It redefined my understanding of what coffee was, could do, and how it could make me feel. For me, coffee is intrinsically linked to being alive. I blame Alaska. The raw vibrancy of that place could turn around even the worst cup – and the combination, sublime. Time to head back to there to find out what a truly excellent cup of coffee would be like with both feet planted in wilderness.

The Bulletproof Diet (BP) book doesn’t stand alone. David Avery (Dave) has been at biohacking for a long time, and has produced nearly 200 detailed podcasts, and dozens of commercial products as a result of his continuous efforts. The focus here is on the book, mostly, but for any topic, go dig through his archives. They’re ridiculously generous.

Core Concepts:

  • Food Quality Matters:
    Dave’s best writing hammers home the point that food quality matters, without any deviation or wavering. Each time it comes up, it feels fresh, relevant, and reinforcing – not boring. It comes through in everything he does. For example, when they make coffee, they use unsalted Kerry Gold butter. He recommends to always use Kerry Gold’s unsalted butter, because Kerry Gold’s salt isn’t high enough quality. Not even pausing for breath, he publicly pressures Kerry Gold to go from 90% grass-fed to 100%. Stew on that a bit – there is no bottom to that once you start digging. Let him go first.
  • Food Spectrums
    As a way out of that bottomless pit, he relies on spectrums of various attributes: quality, nutrient/anti-nutrient ratio, inflammation. This gives the strong willed the ability to save themselves. To successfully navigate his recommendations, you need to firmly keep your specific needs in mind. He does a good job of laying out options, but the course is yours to plot.
  • You need to pay attention to what the hell is going on with your body.
    Like duh. But so hard to do… He provides actionable tool recommendations for minimizing subjectivity and getting useful data. For example, he goes after the drink 8 glasses of water a day mantra. Instead, he advocates simply drinking when you’re thirsty. His core argument is, if you’re drinking high quality liquids (defined as: San Pellegrino from glass, BP Coffee, actual spring water,) and you’re actually paying attention to how your body feels, hydration will solve itself. The dividends from actually paying attention are bonus.
  • Inflammation and Toxins Matter
    He visits these topics so frequently that it’s difficult to separate them. This is in part because his own personal weight loss challenge centered on eliminating toxins as a tactic to reduce inflammation. It’s the cornerstone of the book and as such, there are innumerable tactics both overtly and tangentially discussed. Many of his strategies (I.e. food quality, food spectrums, biohacking tools) made sense to me. Some were new (I.e. actual spring water), but reasonably defended. A close reading will produce an actionable list suitable to your specific needs.
  • Intermittent Fasting (IF)
    He recommends cycling IF depending on the day’s activities. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s in this discussion that I realized that the BP Diet has a ketogenic foundation. It’s low net carbohydrates, high fat and moderate protein. His most insightful comments focused on the metabolism of protein, and why you shouldn’t over-consume it. In addition to the standard growth hormone justification, he presses down on the inflammation reduction angle – hard.
  • Sleep
    I’ve been diligently working on improving my sleep quality for years. Yet, he managed to come up with several new ideas which I hadn’t seen anywhere else. For example, I’m already having good success with the recommended sleep tracking app. I’m going to layer in some of his other suggestions over time. Inflammation reduction is the subtext here, but he also drives home performance angle as well.
  • Exercise
    He wisely opts out of a technical discussion about exercise. Instead he focuses on recovery, inflammation and other performance impacts. He recommends a solid list of other books to read on this topic. I second his Pavel Tsatsouline and Mark Rippetoe recommendations. Left underemphasized is the fact that exercise requires technical study which simply can’t be avoided. Mark Rippetoe has written 150 pages on just the deadlift, every page valuable, and yet he left enough uncovered for Pavel Tsatsouline to write an entire book on just that one exercise. Skip that step -> get injured, every time.
  • Supplements
    Throughout the book he provides supplementation strategies to the topic at hand. They seem reasonable in isolation, but figuring out the right mix is left as an exercise for the reader. Take good notes as you read. It’s damn complicated. He astutely avoids listing his own supplementation strategy, justified by arguing that supplementation must be personalized.
  • “Fruit & Vegetables is not one word”
    Intended as a joke, but capital T true. Each has a very different impact on our bodies. Pay attention to that difference!

My Counterpoints:

  • How you prepare your food matters
    As part of his food spectrum analysis, he also covered the impact of cooking techniques of food. It’s a shorter section and easy to just flip through, but I just couldn’t get past his recommendation against the use of microwaves. His first argument, it’s more likely to denature proteins (cause them to loose shape) than some other cooking strategies, is reasonable to me. His second argument trips my B.S. Filter, namely an assertion that EMF fields are bad. That position is just not sufficiently supported in the book at all. I’ve specifically dug through the podcast and his other web site writings looking for more details and haven’t found anything that I would consider robust.

  • Dog Whistler
    As part of preparing this review, I’ve listened to 20+ podcasts and have reviewed at least that many web site articles. He’ll tosses in references without explanation, attribution or support, on specific topics, which bugs the hell out of me. The question for me is why is he uneven with his external references. Answer that question wrong and my trust level goes to zero. For contentious issues (I.e. EMF Fields, GMO Foods, Ketogenic diets) he’ll address them, but at a noticeably lesser level of detail than other topics, with less attribution, and less referenced research. In other cases, he’ll do things like wear amber glasses on a video completely unrelated to sleep or Melatonin. In those circumstances, the inevitable “Look it’s Bono with bad hair!” commenter pipes up, only to be beaten down by those “in the know.” The second kind of pot stirring is fine and entertaining. I have an issue with the first form, even though I can understand why he might do it. Once you start seeing this pattern, it’s omnipresent and off-putting…

Other’s Counterpoints:

Researching around the web, you can see several variants of haters gonna hate happening here. You can see some here: http://gizmodo.com/bulletproof-coffee-debunking-the-hot-buttered-hype-1681321467, http://authoritynutrition.com/3-reasons-why-bulletproof-coffee-is-a-bad-idea/, http://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2014/12/24/the-bulletproof-diet-is-anything-but. Honestly, those links (gathered from the Bulletproof Diet Wikipedia page) are just horrible reading – exemplar bad science and lying with statistics. What they do take aim at is interesting: no calorie counting, high fat consumption, Ketogenic diets, and elimination of grains and nuts.

Horrifyingly, Gizmodo actually makes the most insightful point, albeit while lying with statistics: “In fact, one Spanish study found that people who drank four cups of coffee a day (and this is any brand of coffee, regardless of price and quality) had only 2-percent of what is considered a safe level of mycotoxins.” Aside from the lack of controls on which brand of coffee (and quantity if you read the study), there’s a difference between what the US, EU and Bulletproof would define as “safe” levels of mycotoxins. Oh, but wait, the Spanish study didn’t look for all mycotoxins, they only tested for one type of mycotoxin. Wait, no they didn’t do that either. They just counted how many cups of coffee people drunk and multiplied it by someone else’s numbers and who’s testing strategy is suspect because the brands don’t match (for starters.) Did I mention that they used people from a coffee growing region of Spain? I could continue, but will stop. /Sigh.

Aside from uncovering less than stellar science, Gizmodo did accidentally put their finger on a key issue. Namely, in the Bulletproof world, food quality is a supreme consideration. So the target is always zero, not “safe” as determined by experts or their government agency counterparts. Zero contamination. Contamination is defined really broadly: external toxins, pesticides, genetic manipulation, incorrect feeding (I.e. Grain fed vs. Grass Fed beef.) I haven’t found any substantive counterpoints which understand that core tenant. Instead they selectively chip around the edges using shopworn arguments and demonstrate their lack of understanding.

Things I really wish:

  1. Connections: The podcast, the book, and his web site stand independently. On just about any topic, Dave’s done at least a few and, in many cases, dozens of interviews and Q&A’s, but finding them is left as an exercise for the reader. BLARGH. This is my bugaboo with audio/video data, but it was especially aggravating here. For starters, he needs to deep link into his own content not just external scientific research.

  2. Thinking Fast & Slow: The one thing I would ask Dave to do, to clarify his thinking, arguments, and approach, would be to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow. He should formulate each Fast & Slow concept as a biohacking and/or Bulletproof as a “law.” Then, he should crib Robert Greene’s format and do a “correct” and “incorrect” application of the “law” as well. That book desperately needs to be written.

  3. Argument on behalf of another: There’s a podcast where he’s asked to argue in favor of Tim Ferriss’ cheat day concept, as defined in the 4 Hour Body book. He devotes nearly ten minutes to the biophysical aspects, but completely misses the motivational and psychological ones. He was clearly versed in the material, but demonstrated a huge blind spot. A fair argument might be levied that he just missed it that one time, or I didn’t understand it, but he consistently views mental performance in terms of cognition and not motivationally. Maybe that’s his point of view on free will showing, but in that case, have Sam Harris on the podcast and be explicit about it.

  4. Don’t try to please everyone: The dog whistler thing really bugs me. They’re specific signals to disparate “health” groups (I.e. Paleo, Ketogenic, Raw Vegan, Biohackers.) I believe that he’s fundamentally honest about his combination of tactics and overarching strategy. He is willing to change his mind. Those characteristics are awesome. Other people, especially those whose views which don’t allow flexibility, are not willing to concede that anyone else might have a functionally correct answer. From their point of view, he is in opposition to them. His current strategy of leaving makers and clues for them to recognize, as a way to preempt their opposing force, and hoping they’ll be unnoticed by those for whom they are not intended, just flat-out irks the hell out of me. I wish there was a variant of this material with either those stances more explicit or removed. I suppose, in the end, this falls into the “I wish groups of people didn’t suck” category. As utterly useless as that is, his material provokes that response too often. That’s on me, and maybe you.

Next Actions

Much of Dave’s recommendations are applicable in isolation, especially if you buy into the “spectrum” model. Many small choices in a better direction feels pretty damn good. Here’s some of the things I’m going to do next, or have found myself doing, almost by accident:

  1. I’m paying more attention to food quality, specifically buying more organic food. I’ve also started applying some of the specific food choice recommendations. I expect this to ramp upward over the next two months as part of a natural progression and inclination.
  2. I’m eating more vegetables. Running around 7 servings a day.
  3. I was already doing Kerry Gold butter. I’m using their unsalted butter now with sea salt as needed.
  4. I’ve changed how I’m cooking. For all of the bitching I did about microwaving, I’ve changed how I’m cooking my eggs and vegetables. I’m going to write more on this as to why this has happened in a separate post. The fact remains that an LONG establish pattern of behavior has changed.
  5. I’m drinking San Pelegrino from glass. It was a stable of my diet for nearly a decade and it feels wonderful to have it back.
  6. I’m going to do a two month course of their Oxaloacetate supplement (https://www.upgradedself.com/products/bulletproof-upgraded-aging-formula) and specifically look for the predicted blood glucose changes over time. This is also some homespun Cognitive Behavior Therapy vis-a-vis a trauma egg discovered issue. Fuck me.
  7. I’m going to carve out a two week block to do the recommended diet plan between now and 6/3/15.

Stories

  • One must first attract attention in order to be able to convey a message
  • People are inherently curious and will often make great effort to pursue and learn about something that seems mysterious
  • People respond to things that are big, bright, and unusual
  • You learn the most when you have no idea what you are doing
  • Jobs that at first might seem boring often turn out to be quite interesting
  • If something works well it doesn’t really matter that it might be old
  • A Sperry antiaircraft searchlight is an outstanding conversation starter
  • Getting people to show up is half the battle
  • Don’t be shy. If you don’t engage people you have no hope of making a sale
  • In naming a company or service, it’s better to be simple and descriptive rather than clever and confusing
  • If you don’t pay close attention to all the details, things will explode – Alexander Isley

Just reading a list of wisdom, even with pithy and fun anecdotes, doesn’t sink in. The knowledge just flows by and is not absorbed. Yet set within the context of his story and it does. See for yourself: click and read.

This isn’t new. Try getting through Mediations after reading Letters to a Stoic. Much of the knowledge inherent in Meditations is unavailable to anyone other than Marcus Aurelius. This is especially noticeable when contrasted with Seneca’s narrative style, even in the one-sided and partial form that remains.

It’s amazing how much more effective a narrative, even a short one, is at passing along a knowledge – a thought.

That’s Stonehenge.

Imagine the stories told against the backdrop of towering granite, a starry night, and a roaring bonfire…

We do not know the words spoken, yet they still resonate in our bones.

I wager this would be a good read: Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives

Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance

The word that comes to me as I reflect on the story of this story is tragedy. There’s so much evidence that a change of course was required – seen and not heeded. There’s a strong parallel between Harvey Smith’s entry into the game industry story and what went wrong. It never occurred to him that people actual made games, yet he played them constantly. Such a strange disconnect. I simply can’t understand it, and frankly neither could he (at the time anyway.)

So, let’s accept that as a blind spot, non-judgmentally. We’ve all got them. That one is his. (A knowledge of one’s blind spot(s) is critical, so many of us don’t think on this at all.)

There’s a similar lesson in Deus Ex:Invisible War and Technosaur. In both cases, external input was set aside and ignored. The “outsider” opinion was rejected out of hand. One did not reject Don Mattrick at EA out of hand, and remain long there. It’s too bad he didn’t have more EA HQ “time”. Maybe that knowledge hadn’t seeped into Origin, but man, how could it not have by then?

The Deus Ex:Invisible War lesson was similar in that he focused on input from a selective (and not representational) group of people instead of as many outside opinions as possible. He gave voice to learning that lesson after the fact, but it’s unclear why it was necessary. Both him and Warren tut-tut’ed on this point, so clearly there was private context not presented.

The parallel remains though. Two dots which ought to have been connected, weren’t. The rationale for why they weren’t connected, outside opinion not taken, is the same. The consequences substantial – art less than what it could have been, and friends fired.

One thing that’s alluded to, but not explicitly communicated, is Warren’s role and awareness. It’s not definitive, but Warren appears to try to take some of the burden of responsibility. Not just in the section about who you should listen too and when, but also in the story about his decision not take the Looking Glass job.

It’s critical that you be in a group with the right people.

You’ll know ’em when you find them.

Both are cliched platitudes, so watered down to be almost useless. At least at the time of Deus Ex, he both knew that was with the right people, and they were in fact the right people.

That’s what makes this story a tragedy.

To have found, and achieved so much. To loose it, and not realize it’s absence. To not have changed, to be still be blind, and crash with such inevitability.

There were so many markers, even in this relatively short discussion that Blacksite:Area 51 wasn’t going to succeed. Sure, I come at this with 20/20 hindsight and years of distance. But there’s this inescapable feeling that I have when I watch him discuss his current project. There’s sense I get from the way of he was presenting. His body language, voice, and words changed subtly. In ways that I recognize, because I’ve done it myself with similar outcomes.

Mirror… Mirror…

Laying off your friends changes you. Being responsible, and not being the river to your people, even if only for a turn of a season, leaves a mark. It also gives you an innate sense – the ability to recognize it in others. Have they? Or have they not yet been the goat? It’s clear he has. On a lesser absolute scale then I, but that’s irrelevant. He clearly felt it and learned from it. His experience was enough for him to learn. (For me, the jury is still out…)

That’s what makes the glaringly obvious issue with Blacksite all the more frustrating. Satire, specifically political satire, is difficult to pull off and has only been done in maybe a handful of games. Trying to pull that off, using current real world events as a foil is just brutally impossible. I can only think of one game ever (Papers, Please) which managed to do it, and even there the world context is obscured.

CoD4’s terror attack on the airport or CoD:BLOPS’s murderous torture scenes aren’t satire. They’re ham-handed attempts at grabbing attention. They’re so over the top, so outside the realm of likelihood, that they aren’t taken as commentary on what is currently happening, or happened. Instead they are a cautionary tale (at best) for what might happen if things are taken to their logical (or extreme) conclusion. Following that train of thought, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that’s what Blacksite attempted/intended to do.

It failed miserably.

Here’s how you know that you’re doing it wrong. Are you suppressing feedback or opportunities for feedback? If you do that with a core element, with the heart of the thing you’re building, you’re well down the path to failure.

The part that kills me is that the clue is on the Warren’s second slide. “Do not undertake the creation of a bunch of brand-new tech if you are not prepared for the time hit involved.” Not tech – that’s too narrow of focus; “new” is the keyword. In this case, delving into the realm of political satire was the new thing. To do so requires humor, deftness, ridicule, and shame to make it go.

None of those things are “well understood” game concepts, even today. Look, I get how damn hard it is to listen to outside opinions – not only to listen, but to even want to acknowledge that they’re even relevant or desirable. Anyone who’s actually done anything has a variant of this story. Daniel Kahneman’s take on this, from a psychological perspective, is described in Thinking, Fast & Slow, as “irrational perseverance.”

Daniel learned three lessons from his brush with the similar circumstances. First, there are two distinctly different types of forecasting, the inside and outside view. The inside view is the one we’re all familiar with – it’s the estimate based on the perspective of the person actually doing the work. It tends to be the “best-case” scenario because, after all as humans we’re fundamentally optimistic.

How to do deal with that “planning fallacy,” as Daniel calls it, is the second lesson: one should balance all forecasts with both inside and outside views of the project. An example of an outside view is to determine what the base success rate of projects similar to the one we’re working on. In Daniel’s example, the outside view estimate was seven years, with a 40% chance of failure – a far cry from “another year or two” inside view estimate.

That huge gulf leads to the third lesson:

“I was slower to accept the third lesson, which I call irrational perseverance: the folly we displayed that day in failing to abandon the project. Facing a choice, we gave up rationality rather than give up the enterprise.

Excerpt From: Daniel Kahneman. “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” iBooks.

They dealt with the forecast discrepancy the same way that just about every other human on the planet would. They shrugged their shoulders, picked up their shovels, and kept digging. Paying heed, and doing that which should have been done, namely quitting the very day that you realize that you’re not going to achieve your goal within the amount of effort you’re willing to spend… Well that’s just not things that people do.

Not in real life. Not even when we know better. Not in our stories. I can hear Lex Luthor now: “North Ms. Tessmacher! North!”

We willingly throw away good money after bad. Our time and that of others. We trade away all that we have of value, and compel others to do the same. Down the hole in complete and utter denial.

Realizing that we’re doing this is something that people, for whatever reason, just don’t do as a matter of course. We try to prevent it from happening. It’s surprise to us when we do get outside opinions. If such a calamity does befalls us, we do our damnedest to ignore it.

Why do creative endeavors seem to require willful blindness?

I suppose without it, we would not take risks. Without it, we could not shoulder the responsibility necessary. Without it, we would not be free. With it, we are endowed with a superpower – one which allows us, and only us, to predict the the one true future.

Sigh, what madness is that?

That’s the moral to his story for me. That question and the roughest outline of an answer.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime

Copybooks: Privacy, Logjams, and Permanence

For some tactical copybook how-to listen: How To Create A Personal Knowledge Management System from Coaching for Leaders

In addition to the tactical, it really shook thoughts of privacy loose. I spend a lot of time interacting with, and thinking about things which, when taken out of context, could result in negative consequences. I wrote a study on binomial random number theory, based on the digits of Pi, spurred on by the Pioneer Plaque & the Voyager Golden Record, but also inspired by something else. For those keeping score: game design relevant math, To Infinity and Beyond!, somewhere from my past, and something I shouldn’t talk about.

Damn it.

Such is the way of things and, by no means, is it new.

Check out this crazy: History’s Greatest Alchemists, Part 1: Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Isaac Newton was nuts for alchemy. As in lead to gold. Yes, the Royal Society of London member, 3 laws of motion, ouch an apple just hit my head. He published hundreds of pages about alchemy at a time when it was downright risqué. He spent more seeking the Philosopher’s Stone than on MATH. Who did he think he was? Harry Potter?

Actually no, Isaac was a following an already well worn path. There’s just something about Physics which led one to contemplate God, the existence and reality of his existence. There’s just something about wondering about the true nature of matter which makes one contemplate and invoke the divine – or to deny divinities existence.

All sorts of wonderfully heretical thoughts become possible. Should we worship the Sun and Stars in the context of Christianity? Should the be venerated as Saints? Isaac and Kepler (yes – THAT Kepler) thought so. Isaac didn’t just say that we should, he actually wrote it down (A short Schem for the true Religion.) He published it, back when that was difficult.

Think on that for a moment.

How much trouble that could have caused for him. Did it cause trouble for him? How could it not? How could he be two so divergent and incompatible people at the same time? I immediately jump to the world was different in the early 1700’s than now, but that seems like to simple of an answer. Different how? Different why? Is there some way to be able to return to that level of “freedom”? Would we want to be able to? (Tons more on alchemy here: History of Alchemy Podcast.)

Thoughts for another day…

The Capture, Curation, and Create steps should be separated by time, to serve as an automatic filter, ensuring your limited time and effort is well spent. If something isn’t interesting two days later, why would you want to spend even more time with it? A reasonable enough assertion. But I think it’s also important to go back and ask yourself: What did I miss the first time I looked at this? It’s amazing to me how often that question comes to the answer: oh this is reductive and therefore uninteresting. Or: hey, this connects to that other thing in an interesting way. Or: this is cool, but I’ve got something better to work on.

I’m intentionally creating a logjam of ideas. Too much to fit through the hole. Too much to process in the time available. Too many other worthy choices. Often times really great things do not survive and are forgotten.

It’s harsh as hell.

It requires the conviction of the righteous – a conviction recently buttressed by the discovery that Robert Greene follows a similar approach (via Mixergy) with sufficient vigor that he requires it of others. (A detailed comparison of Ryan Holiday’s version of Robert’s system is one of the “logs” in the river at the moment. I expect it’ll come out a bit like the Telephone Game with aspects of game cloning artifacts. That said, TOO SOON…)

[I took a detour here to write in DayOne, because that lead to thoughts not suitable for public conception. An excellent segue to the concept of Permanence…]

Virtual knowledge stores (web pages, emails, twitter feeds photos, etc.) are incredibly fragile. Those that assert otherwise… Haven’t been on the Internet long enough. Haven’t been interacting with technology long enough. Haven’t heard people much smarter than I:

Yet, here I write on a service owned by someone else. On a server I don’t control. Under ToS for which I can’t veto, or even appeal. With the explicit intention of keeping, and using, this information in the future.

Oops…

Thinking Fast & Slow – Experienced Utility in Game Design

Utility is one of those words which mean something different to psychologists than it does to us normal humans. People aren’t who researchers would like to assume we are. We know what made us happy, or hurt us. However, our memory is subject to how we process the world – something we’re not rational about. So it’s our memory of events which matters, not what actually happened that determines if we like something, or not. That understanding ought to impact how we design games.

First, some background on memory – or experienced utility to use the psychologist’s term. From Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” The term utility, in the psychological sense, includes pleasure and pain in the its scope, and our recollection of them. It’s completely subjective, and verity has nothing to do with it.

Don Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman did a pain study on… a really painful medical procedure. They tracked two different measures of “utility”: pain at any given moment and a global retrospective rating. They charted the results for a variable length and variable pain intensity procedure. Summarizing their results as two rules:
* Peak-end rule: The global retrospective rating corollated to the worst level of pain, and at its end.
* Duration neglect: Duration had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.

Restated:
1. If you’re in maximum pain at the end of a procedure, you will feel the whole procedure was more painful.
2. The average level of pain maters, if it matches the pain at the end.
3. How long a procedure lasts doesn’t matter to your perception of pain-level.

Applying that to medical procedures, if you’re goal is to minimize pain, lower the peak intensity and gradual relieve pain at the end, rather than reducing duration of the procedure. If you’re goal is to reduce the actual amount of pain experienced, reduce the duration, even if doing so causes patients to have a more awful memory. Reduction of the actual amount of pain experienced is the rational goal, but not the one that participates will select given the choice. They’ll opt for a duration increase of 50%, because their memory of the pain will be less severe.

So, what the hell does this have to do with games?

Here’s what getting utterly stomped on looks like in Hearthstone (click for larger):

Priest go BOOM!

Quick recap: The player on the top has utterly crushed the bottom player (me) with a score of 34 to 2. (The first to 30 wins.) Interestingly, in this particular case, I had been doing fairly well, up until the last two turns, at which point I got utterly stomped. Lopsided defeats like this are painful, and do happen fairly often.

Or do they?

Is it possible I’m just remembering wrong? Humans do widely overestimate the frequency intense events…

Hypothesis: By applying the psychological concept of utility, we can reduce the intensity of the negative memory formed by loosing so badly and quickly. In doing so, we can increase near and long-term player retention.

Goal: Reduce the intensity of the loosing player’s “pain” by obscuring the magnitude of their loss. That should result in an increase of immediate replays after substantial losses and corresponding increased long-term customer retention.

Specific actions to be taken:
1. For the looser, do not display a negative (or zero) number for the player’s health (visible in the lower right hand corner of the player’s character.) Assume that players will be lazy, and not do the math, especially because they (initiatively) know that it won’t come out in their favor.
2. For the looser, do not display the damage of the killing blow. This extends the logic from action #1 to it’s logical conclusion.
3. For the victory, do display the negative value and killing blow damage. Those are positives, so hype the hell out of them, possibly even more than they are already. (Supported by the psychological concept of loss aversion.)
4. Prevent end-game “burst” damage. High mana costs cards (the blue crystal in the upper-left) do more damage – that’s desirable and to be expected. However, when a player takes 15 hit points, or more, of damage in a turn, that’s “pain.”
5. Change Archmage Antonidas (the minion in front of the winning player) from “Whenever you cast a spell, put a ‘Fireball‘ spell into your hand.” to “Whenever you cast a spell, put a ‘Fireball‘ spell into your hand*, at the end of your turn.*” Using the existing card, a player can do at least 12 points of damage in a turn, even if they don’t already have a ‘Fireball‘ card in their hand. That is “burst” – arguably too much.
6. Review logs for other combinations which have the same issue. For example, a Shaman could do more than 25 hit points of damage in a turn, but that has been fixed.
7. Ramp down the effect of repeatedly cast spells. A gradual step down will result in a less painful memory. Applying that here, each subsequent ‘Fireball‘ spell should do one less damage than the previous one. Even though the result would have been the same, in this case, the intensity of the negative memory would have been reduced.
8. A more substantial ramp down of 50% would also potentially cause players to reconstitute their decks instead of every Mage deck always having two Fireballs in them. At a minimum, one would expect less back-to-back casts of the same spell on the same target. If those would be desirable outcomes, for other reasons beyond the scope of this document, then that would also bear testing.

How to measure success:
1. Time until next play. Desired outcome: Down for the looser. Remain unchanged for victor.
2. Time until next play of the same class. Desired outcome: Down for the looser. Remain unchanged for victor.
3. Is there a deck composition change. Desired outcome: none, just want to watch for unexpected results.

Why is this important:
It’s critical that players not come to the conclusion that Hearthstone is a “pay to win” game, otherwise huge numbers will never play. Legendary cards, indicated by the orange pip under their name (visible on the Onyxia card in my hand) are extremely rare. For example, after expensive play (261 wins, and more losses than that,) I have five legendary cards, two of which I spent money for. Getting defeated so roundly by a legendary card drives home the concept of paying to win. Spend $50 and you’re statistically likely to get 2.

Blizzard must be ever vigilant at managing the player’s memory of the performance of legendary cards, because, for better or worse, they’re going to be assumed as being bought – even if they weren’t.

(Lots of assertions in this section which bear further study and supporting proof, but that’s for another day.)

Copybooks are trouble

Some of my earliest memories are of the pre-printed variety. More than what Rudyard Kipling would recognize as such, but they were Gods none the less. Wisdom and morality. Thoughts and knowledge.

Questions to be asked and answered.

Reading became acquiring knowledge. Of analysis. Without regard to the time or effort required. The creation of an aggregate collection of applied knowledge. Without question. Simply because it was to be done. The concept of pleasure reading doesn’t make any sense to me.

Even popcorn has a taste.

I cannot read Tarzan and not feel aspiration. I cannot read Starship Troopers and and think of my own family. I cannot read The Dresden Files and not seek out impossible odds. If I have an experience, it’s coming on board – one way or another. Only by choice. Consciously and deliberately.

I am my own cruel taskmaster.

My copybook is a multihued thing: private thoughts in a DayOne journal, semi-private Facebook posts, writings on a blog, wholesale replication of other’s thoughts in EverNote, and broken phrases on Twitter. Each has it’s point and value, but they’re for my understanding, not for others, even thought they maybe available to them.

I discovered that I wasn’t not alone in this practice. That I’m not the only one who’s taken the rote act of copying and morphed it into making something my own.

While plowing through Robert Greene’s Mastery, I realized the damn point. The process I followed, without ever questioning, was not how others did things. Instead they had to actually be both taught and convinced of its value. How is that not prima facie obvious?

The human race simply isn’t lucky that way.

Without application, how can you verify veracity? Without, at least, even trying to use use something, how can you know how something works? Or if it even works? This takes a huge effort. System 2 is lazy and our brains are willing to accept what they see is all that there is (WYSIATI.)

My brain hurts.

That’s just the start of it:

  1. You’ll know that you’ve wasted your time. Well before you get to the end of whatever it is you start, you will come to the conclusion that what you are doing has no value. Many whelps – handle it.

  2. It’s actually hard to apply something. Knowledge of both it’s form and function are required. That understanding is not easy.

  3. Correctness is not required. You can learn a hell of a lot from swinging a hammer, even if you don’t drive the nail in straight the first time.

  4. Making choices takes from the same font as willpower. The knock-on damage is significant, and must be paid attention to.

Break-break.

Copybook example follows:

Others carry the same copybook lodestone.

Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds — no more, no less — to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay. – anon

THIRTY SECONDS? I might as well be running around screaming about ONE POINT TWENTY ONE GIGAWATTS! Holy hell. I can’t even write a paragraph in 30 seconds.

I’m agog at the constraint. Clearly.

I wonder if getting faster at writing and drawing would be helpful? Not typing. Writing. How else could something like this be done? There’s just not enough… information density in the written word to be able to communicate even the edges of a (substantial) idea in 30 seconds.

Who the hell am I? Sun Tzu? Marcus Aurelius? A fortune cookie?

Sigh… Following this idea to it’s logical conclusion is going to lead to a whole new toolchain.

Like I have the energy, the willpower, the time, for that.

The queue is already ridiculous.

An echo of Stonehenge compels me forward.

Enough, or no.