What Can We Learn from Games?

ImageThis holiday season I enjoyed giving, receiving, and playing several new card and board games with friends and family. These included classics such as cribbage, strategy games like Dominion and Power Grid, and the whimsical Munchkin.

Can video and board games teach us more than just strategy? What if games could teach us not to be better thinkers, but just to be… better? A while ago we discussed how monopoly was originally designed as a learning experience to promote cooperation. Lately I have learned of two other such games in a growing genre and wanted to share them here.

The first is Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn (via Jeff Atwood):

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.

The second is Train by Brenda Romero (via Marcus Montano) described here with spoilers:

In the game, the players read typewritten instructions. The game board is a set of train tracks with box cars, sitting on top of a window pane with broken glass. There are little yellow pegs that represent people, and the player’s job is to efficiently load those people onto the trains. A typewriter sits on one side of the board.

The game takes anywhere from a minute to two hours to play, depending on when the players make a very important discovery. At some point, they turn over a card that has a destination for the train. It says Auschwitz. At that point, for anyone who knows their history, it dawns on the player that they have been loading Jews onto box cars so they can be shipped to a World War II concentration camp and be killed in the gas showers or burned in the ovens.

The key emotion that Romero said she wanted the player to feel was “complicity.”

“People blindly follow rules,” she said. “Will they blindly follow rules that come out of a Nazi typewriter?”

I have tried creating my own board games in the past, and this gives me renewed interest and a higher standard. What is the most thought-provoking moment you have experienced playing games?

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.

How “The Wire” Explains Microsoft

I cannot speak to the accuracy of this since I do not know much about the internal workings of Microsoft, but as an analogy I found it fascinating. David Auerbach on how The Wire explains Microsoft:

What does Microsoft in the Ballmer era have in common with drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s organization in The Wire? For years, both of them had the strongest package. They owned their territory, owned their market, owned their users. They were untouchable. Then times changed, bringing new competitors with new, intense products. Their own product went weak. But they couldn’t let go. “We got a weak product, and we holding on to prime real estate with no muscle,” Avon’s cerebral second-in-command, Stringer Bell, complains to him. For the Barksdale organization, the product was heroin and the real estate was the drug-ravaged Franklin Towers housing project. For Microsoft, the product is Windows and the real estate is the PC.

More here (some language NSFW).

Phil Schrodt on the State of the Discipline

pale_blue_dotI try to avoid too many “inside baseball” posts here, but today I make an exception. Phil Schrodt announced his retirement to the blogosphere last Thursday after giving notice in March. I had occasion to meet Phil at ISA in April and have enjoyed hearing and reading his thoughts on the discipline of political science and academia more generally. The whole post (actually, his whole blog) is worth a read, but here are a couple of points that stuck out to me.

On the influence of technology and the web:

Due to technological changes, I no longer really need the resources of a large institution. Computing power?—I’ve now got a machine with 8 Gb of memory (upgradeable to 32 Gb) and a 1.2 Ghz processor. And that’s just my phone. Cluster computing I can get from Amazon or Google using my credit card; dozens of companies can provide web hosting. Penn State—at least until someone reads this essay—has allowed me to maintain access to paywalled electronic resources but I use these only rarely: all of the reference material I need, particularly for technical support, is free on the Web. Despite the library being literally next door to my campus office, I rarely set foot in it. Those 46% indirect costs go for what???

(The 46 percent refers to the amount of overhead that institutions get from grants the researcher brings in.)

On trends in academia:

[F]inally, when you find yourself beginning to feel sympathetic with many of the stereotypical negative things people say about academia, it is time to go. You start to recognize just how much of what seems trendy and oh-so-cool right now, whether theory or methodology, is utterly transient, with an expected lifespan approximating that of a gerbil, and on the theoretical side, often as not is merely a poorly updated re-hash of some school of thought current 3,000 or more years ago….

Academic institutions have changed little since the post-WWII expansions of the 1950s, while the world around them has changed dramatically.  What little change has occurred appears focused on the proliferation of pointless administrative positions whose sole purpose is to make the institution more expensive and less efficient. An imitation of the US auto industry in the 1960s. We know how that turned out.

Those left with a lingering “so what?” should see yesterday’s post.

See also: “Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis” (pdf)

Podcasts I Like

Apologies for the silence here lately. I have been working on a couple of longer-than-average posts, as well as some fun projects that I will hopefully be able to share with you here soon. Part of the influence in those upcoming posts is from podcasts I have enjoyed. (Readers of the tipping post may have noticed that two of the main references there were to podcasts as well.)

Ben Franklin Koss HeadphonesThus, I thought readers of this blog might enjoy some of my favorites. There are likely some that I have omitted because I listened to all of their episodes some time ago. Below are those that have stood the test of time or that I am listening to currently.

Economics/Social Science

  • Analysis: Half-hour episodes on current events with a social scientific perspective.
  • Data Stories: As you might expect, an audio podcast about data visualization has some weak points. However, this is useful as a who’s-who of the visualization community.
  • Econtalk: My absolute favorite podcast. Each week, Russ Roberts and a guest discuss research or current events using economics as a lens on the world. Sometimes I think Russ is too hard on statistical methods, but every episode is worth a listen.
  • Great Economists: Originally a MOOC from MRUniversity, the audio from this course is now available as a condensed series of podcasts.
  • History of Rome: History’s greatest empire in 170-odd episodes. Although new episodes are no longer being produced, host Mike Duncan has a new project in the pipeline that is expected in September.
  • Loopcast: DC WarKids and their guests discuss national security and international relations.
  • More or Less: Tim Harford takes quantitative headlines and questions them, often finding more than meets the eye.
  • Planet Money: My second-favorite podcast, after Econtalk. The hosts explain current events or applied economics lessons in accessible language with fun examples. A podcast like this focused on politics would immediately become my all-time favorite.
  • Pop-Up Ideas: Another Tim Harford podcast, this one covers big ideas in social science in a short and punchy manner.

Technology

  • Accidental Tech Podcast: Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa discuss Apple and web technology. This podcast originated as outtakes of their casual car show, Neutral. A very enjoyable listen every week.
  • Bitsplitting: Daniel Jalkut  interviews technology professionals, many of them entrepreneurs.
  • CMD+Space: Myke Hurley interviews guests who “do great things.”
  • Giant Robots Smashing into Other Giant Robots: Discussions of software design and development, hosted by Thoughtbot’s Ben Orenstein.
  • Ruby Rogues: Although originally a Ruby-focused program, after over 100 episodes the rogues now delve into other issues including education, cognition, and the politics of software communities.

George Box, the Accidental Statistician

GeorgeEPBoxGeorge Box, renowned statistician, passed away on April 10 of this year at the age of 93. As the title of his recently released memoir suggests, he stumbled into the career that made him famous. During the Second World War, he was assigned to the Chemical Defence Experimental Station, located at Porten Down. From there, as he recounts,

[M]y job was to make biochemical determinations in experiments on small animals. The results I was getting were very variable, and I told Cullumbine that what we needed was a statistician to analyze our data. He said, “Yes, but we can’t get one. What do you know about it?” I told him I had once tried to read a book about it by someone called R.A. Fisher, but I hadn’t understood it. He said, “Well you read the book so you’d better do it.” So I said, “Yes Sir.” (Kindle Locations 750-754).

I found this book useful because so many biographies are written as if the protagonist had his or her life all planned out from the beginning. Autobiographies are a bit more honest on this front, but none as much as Box’s.

This is particularly helpful for grad students, who tend to get advice from a very biased sample: successful academics. From their accounts we can estimate the probability that someone successful took a certain course of action. But without information on those who do not become academics, it’s impossible to obtain the probability of success when adopting that same strategy. Box’s memoir alone can’t entirely undo this, of course, but he does relate stories of many of his grad students who chose positions in industry.

Here are some quotations from it that I enjoyed:

  • “A serious mistake has been made in classifying statistics as part of the mathematical sciences. Rather it should be regarded as a catalyst to scientific method itself.” (Kindle Locations 545-546).
  • “I forget whom I lied to (I expect it was the Army— they were used to it), but I did get my discharge.” (Kindle Locations 930-931).
  • “Likelihood methods are like a very intelligent but nondiscriminating child.” (Kindle Location 2024).
  • “None of this is a hanging matter.” (Kindle Location 2029).
  • “Originality and wit are very close.” (Kindle Location 2340).

The main weakness of the book is its meandering style. Box often goes from anecdote to anecdote in a train of thought style where the logic of transition is unclear to the reader. This becomes less irritating by the second half of the book, either because it received better editing or because I grew used to the style.

Overall, I recommend the book to several audiences: grad students in any quantitative field, practicing statisticians, and those who would like to know more about the personal life of this influential figure.

Net Neutrality: Why You Should Care

Image via TheNextWeb

Image via TheNextWeb

What is net neutrality? It’s the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all traffic equally, not giving preferential treatment to certain users, types of data, or equipment. With FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on the way out, nominee Tom Wheeler may not be able to avoid this fight if he succeeds Genachowski.

Here’s the Tim Wu of the New Yorker on the essence of the issue:

An important aspect of the Internet’s original design is that many prices were set at zero—what have been called zero-price rules. The price to join the network is zero. The price that users and sites pay to reach others is zero: a blogger doesn’t need to pay to reach Comcast’s customers. And the price that big Web sites charge broadband operators to carry their content is also zero. It’s a subtle point, but these three zeros are a large part of what makes the Internet what it is. If net neutrality goes away, so does the agreement to freeze prices at zero….

Admittedly, it is hard to know exactly how things would work out if the zero-price rules are abandoned. Cable still has serious market power, and might, on balance, be able to charge more than it gets charged. But if you’re a cable operator, why take that bet when you’re already sitting on giant profit margins? Why risk the best business going? Beyond cable operators, a battle royale over Internet programming and termination fees would ultimately be terrible for consumers; the Internet would start to get both worse and more expensive.

Think of it this way: net neutrality, which sets all these prices at zero, is effectively a grand truce between the big app firms and the infrastructure providers. It eliminates an unnecessary middleman: consumers deal directly with content vendors and app firms. That’s a much healthier market dynamic than one driven by hidden, passed-on costs. If cable TV isn’t a good enough example, consider the dysfunction of the health-care industry, where consumers never see what they are paying for. That’s what the present rule avoids.

YSPR will continue to monitor this issue and provide updates here.

Great Gatsby, Copyright, and the Public Domain

f_scott_fitzgerald_in_carIs the Great Gatsby in the public domain? The book was written in 1925 and Fitzgerald passed away in 1940. Copyright generally expires 70 years after the author’s death, so you could be forgiven for thinking the answer is “yes.”

If you live in Australia, Canada, or another jurisdiction outside the US, you can already get the book through sites like Project Gutenberg Australia. US residents should not click that link–had SOPA been passed, this site could have been censored for even providing the link. In these United States, however, Gatsby is still not in the public domain.

Here’s Duke’s Kevin Smith (who we’ve talked to before) on the convoluted reasoning behind this:

Let’s look for a minute at F. Scott.  Because he died in December of 1940, his unpublished works do enter the public domain in the United States as of 1/1/11.  His published works, however, are another story.  If a Fitzgerald work was published between 1920 and 1922, as This Side of Paradise was, for example, it is in the public domain.  But any works published in 1923 0r later, such as The Great Gatsby, are still protected.  After 1922 (and prior to 1963), a work that was published with copyright notice  and the copyright in which was renewed is given a term of 95 years from publication (the initial 28 year term plus a renewal term, after the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, of 67 years).  Thus published works from this time period are protected until at least 2019; — 1923 plus 95 years equals 2018, so works published that year will rise into the public domain on 1/1/2019.  The author’s date of death does not make any difference for these works.

This distinction seems designed to confuse librarians and other users of works.  An archive of Fitzgerald manuscripts, for example, could digitize and make available those items that were never published, or that were published earlier in F. Scott’s career (like Tales of the Jazz Age).  But a manuscript of Gatsby or Tender is the Night is still subject to protection.

The EFF had a nice explainer on this topic recently as well. Copyright restrictions aren’t just tougher in the US, they’re also subject to the whims of Congress. Congressional action can remove books from the public domain even after they’re put there by law, thanks to this Supreme Court decision.

How does this regulation affect the availability of books? Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic called it the “missing 20th century” based on Paul Heald’s study, “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Fall Into the Public Domain?” Here’s a chart of books available from Amazon by decade of publication:

Amazon pub domain-thumb-615x368-83391

Continuing to extend copyright protection every time Mickey Mouse gets close to being put in the public domain helps Disney, but it does not help the spread of knowledge. Don’t get me started on Hollywood, though–I’m off to see the movie.

The Aesthetic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

On episode 18 of the Loopcast, Sina and his guest discuss fashion and national security. Around 23:00 comes the money quote: “There’s a lot of black hair dye involved being a dictator.” Here’s the logic:

[I]n a democracy, your hair turns grey very quickly in a four year term…. But in a dictatorship, the hair gets oddly darker: it just turns to an eerie shade of black…. [Dictators] want to remain relevant. They didn’t want to get old…. They didn’t want it to seem like they had been getting old and getting crushed by the responsibility of their job.

While a random sample of hair shades and a thorough hypothesis test is beyond the scope of this post, I’ll let the readers judge for themselves based on the photos below. Note that one source of bias may be that US presidents try to look young and vital for the election but let their hair go after that.

Democratic Leaders:

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

george-w-bush-2001-2008

George W. Bush, 2001 and 2008

barack-obama-2009-2011

Barack Obama, 2009 and 2011

(More US president before/after photos here.)

Dictators:

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Hugo Chavez not letting grey get the best of him

Hugo Chavez kept grey at bay until the very end

The Political Economy of *Killing Them Softly*

killing-them-softlyOver the weekend I rented Killing them Softly expecting a relatively mindless movie featuring Brad Pitt as a hitman. I was only half right. During several key scenes George W. Bush and his administration officials can be heard giving statements to the press about the financial crisis; Barack Obama is elected near the end. The man hiring Pitt refers to the “corporate mentality” of his bosses and tries to pay him less than he is owed. The plot centers around a gambling racket in New Orleans. Do you get the metaphor yet?

Yes, the movie is a cautionary tale about greed and risk in light of the 2008 financial crisis. The following quotes from an interview with writer and director Andrew Dominik make the connection clear:

[A]s I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation….

I always feel that crime films are about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only. I always think in some ways the crime film is the most honest American film, because it portrays Americans as I experience them. Particularly in Hollywood, people are very concerned with money….

The film’s not about Obama, it’s about a crisis in the economy, and the people who have to clean it up.

Don’t worry–the movie doesn’t come off as hokey or the metaphor as forced. (The use of politicians as background audio is mostly in the first half.) It’s a satisfying film whether you want the shoot-em-up I expected or something a bit deeper.

For more YSPR fun at the movies see these posts on Public Enemies and Moneyball.