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Month: December 2020

What I learned in 2020

What I learned in 2020

Looking back at 2020, it at once one of the most eventful and one of the least eventful years of my life (of all of our lives, I imagine). Mostly we stayed at home and did nothing. Very uneventful. But also, we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic, and I moved in permanently with my BFF. Absolutely earth-shattering.

And then there was this insane election and this dreadful sense that we might be close to a coup of some sort and the end of democracy in the United States. I believe that danger has passed, but for awhile there I was shaken up.

This year I’ve blogged extensively about both the political divide and the pandemic. On this final day of 2020 I wanted to think a little more about the year’s lessons.

My BFF was telling me that some Trump supporters on her social media feeds have argued that total deaths this past year are actually no different than in past years. It’s not to deny the reality of Covid-19, but to say that because of the lockdowns other causes of death have been reduced (for example, vehicle-related), so it’s evened out. I guess they think this is a reason to open up the economy again, though when I think about it, wouldn’t it make sense to never reopen, even after everyone is vaccinated and Covid is no longer a threat? Then the death rate should really go down!

In all seriousness, I understand that we accept certain levels of risk in our society. There is no way to eliminate altogether the possibility of death or bodily harm. We can’t live our lives at all if we are too cautious about accepting risk. And we have schemes to mitigate risk; we all accept the dangers of automobile use, knowing that our insurance system will absorb the costs, if not guarantee our lives. Less effectively, our health insurance system does the same for medical risks.

The point that anti-shutdowners seem to be missing is that the costs associated with Covid-19 are much too high for our healthcare system to absorb. So just accepting the risk in the way we do with the dangers of automobile use is not a good option. To bolster their arguments, pandemic deniers fall back on questioning the data altogether. It must be that it’s all overblown. And I understand part of the motivation for believing this – for many people, the shutdown has been financially devastating. It is quite a quandary.

So a big lesson of the year is that we need to restore trust in our society, and to heal the political divide. It has been tough living in this time of contentious politics. And we need to reform our fragile system so that when public health demands drastic change, it isn’t quite so destructive of people’s livelihoods. It’s certainly doable, with all the wealth in our country.

And maybe we should have been practicing some of these health measures already – wearing face masks in the flu season, for example. Certainly when we ourselves are symptomatic; this is common practice in other societies.

I know its easy for me to accept the pandemic protocols, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker. Personally, I’ve had one of the healthiest years of my life, except for a bit of a lack of exercise. Not travelling, and having the boys stay home from school has meant that I haven’t had a cold since early in the year. Usually I get sick a couple of times at least. And not commuting has been a blessing, saving both time and money. But like I said, that’s not an option for everyone.

Ok, I’m rambling. What did I learn this year? That I am very lucky. That what matters is family and loved ones. That we should enjoy life while we have it, because it is very fragile. Our whole world is fragile. Live fully in each day because time always rushes on.

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

I’m sure you’ve heard of the science fiction genre known as cyberpunk. I’m not talking about the recently released video game; I mean science fiction that is high-tech and futuristic in its setting, and politically and socially dystopian in its outlook.

An early example in film was the 1982 movie Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel from the 1960s. It was a real trendsetter for the cyberpunk aesthetic – bleak and dark, but also slick and stylish. Like how everybody dressed in the nineties. It promised a future of brutal corporate rule and film noir cool. Did it get that future right? Not really. But as I broke it down in a review of the film and its sequel, science fiction is just modern mythology. Most of it is fantastical and completely unrealistic in its extrapolations; the real point of it is to explore the human psyche and the meaning of life.

Cyberpunk took off in the late 1900s, but as the world turned and the real cyberworld evolved, it looked less and less like the jaded, punk settings of the fictional genre. Going into the twenty-first century, cyberreality was becoming helpful and consumer-oriented. A more accurate depiction in dystopian fiction of the world to come was captured in the 2002 movie Minority Report, also based on a Philip K. Dick story. It was quite prescient in its forecast of a society under continuous surveillance and evaluation. The world it envisions even includes targeted advertising, and self-driving cars. The big thing it gets wrong is that, instead of psychics, we use machine learning algorithms to predict human behavior.

Now that we’re one-fifth of the way into the new century, and deep into the Crisis Era, the luster has come off of the consumer-oriented market society. Concerns about wealth and income inequality, and the plight of the underprivileged, have come to the forefront of popular dystopian science fiction. In the 2018 movie Ready Player One, a powerful tech company dominates society and a permanent underclass can only find respite in virtual reality. Sound anything like your life?

In the even higher stakes story of 2013’s Elysium, the Earth inhabited by the poor is almost unlivable, and the privileged middle class has taken to an orbital space habitat, where they enjoy vastly superior lives to those on the planet surface. Clearly this society has not dealt successfully with either climate change or the rising cost of healthcare. As far-fetched as the techonologies may be in the film, the allegory of an elite class that has completely abandoned any sense of social responsibility is unmistakeably relevant.

What kind of harrowing, high-tech dystopia do we actually live in today? That takes me to the title of this post and the subreddit /r/aboringdystopia. Here the teeming digital masses chronicle all the petty injustices and cruelties of the modern world, all the ways the megacorps keep us under their thumbs, all the ways that late stage capitalism is failing us. We did manage to get to a dystopia of oppressive corporate rule after all, it’s just not futuristic or cyberpunk.

Somehow we became an oppressed underclass without keeping any sense of style. We’re sitting in our sweatpants and binge-watching Amazon Prime, not running around in cool leather jackets like Neo and Trinity. But in our own sad way, we’re jacked in to the Matrix and trapped in a dystopia.

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

I just finished this quick read – It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Here’s my review on goodreads:

The Boomer generation is one whose scholars and thinkers (and they are a thinking generation rather than a doing generation) tend towards pessimistic outlooks and dire prognostications. They are also the most politically destructive generation in living memory. The destructiveness the Boomers have wrought in American government is the subject of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, a collaboration by two of their own chorts. While the book isn’t explicitly generational history, the story it tells, of government becoming increasingly partisan and conflict-oriented rather than coalitional and achievement-oriented, clearly coincides with the Boomers’ rise to political power.

The authors trace the beginnings of this trend all the way back to 1978, when Newt Gingrich first took office in the House of Representatives. Before reading this book, I had not realized how far back the inception of the Gingrich Revolution was, or how long it took to come to fruition. It was predicated on a strategy of confrontation and disruption, and of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions: the Boomer modus operandi since the days of the student movements of the 1960s. By the time of the Obama administration, when this book was first published, the strategy enabled a Republican minority to hold the United States government hostage.

The fundamental problem which Mann and Ornstein diagnose is that parliamentary style political parties do not mesh well with a system of separate branches with checks and balances. A minority party can easily exploit one branch’s power to limit another’s and prevent any governing from happening at all. This suits the ideology of the Republican party, which holds that government is actually undesirable altogether, and their asymmetric use of this strategem against the Democratic party has defined politics in the United States in our time. Generation X politicians in the GOP, like the “Young Guns” of the 2008 election cycle, have been happy to take up the banner of obstructionism in the name of anti-government principles. This alliance between Boomer and Gen X conservatives has wielded considerable power, and clearly marks a generational shift in U.S. politics.

Again, the authors don’t explicitly make a generational point. What they do is break down the problem in terms of specific factors and offer some possible remedies. Foremost is improving voter participation and shifting away from winner-take-all electoral processes, which prevent moderate politicians from winning elections. Campaign finance reform is another possible remedy at the electoral level. At the institutional level, reducing the use of the filibuster to obstruct legislation and executive nominations is key. Finally, improving the culture overall is required, to restore public trust and recreate a sense of public space.

The authors released an edition in 2016 with the title updated to “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”; this is the edition I read. In the afterword, Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that nothing improved since 2011, that all the trends of hyperpartisanship and extremism and lack of compromise have worsened. And this was before Trump won the election; I can only guess that a third edition published now would be titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined”. The disastrous inability of the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the damage that the insurgent Republican party has done to our political system.

Overall this book is a quick and easy read, and an eye-opening work of political analysis. It explains the changes that have occurred in government since Boomers and Gen Xers have come to dominate in office, and how the confrontational style of parliamentary politics has rendered our constitutional system dysfunctional. It understands that restoring the functioning “normality” of the past, with parties that are adversarial but able to work together, will be difficult. Informed by generational theory, we must recognize that it will take future generations of politicians to get us there.

I’ll just add that, despite the pessimistic title I gave to this blog post, I feel like we might soon be over with this period of hyperpartisanship. I think the worst of the extremists are being discredited, and are being marginalized in the public sphere. Trump’s hopes of a coup of some sort are fading, and Trump supporters are heading for the shadows.

Obviously a lot is riding on the transition to the Biden administration and its first few months. Like all of us, I will watching intently to see if it finally starts getting better.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

It hasn’t come up much on my blog, but I am actually really into board gaming. It’s odd that I don’t blog about it; maybe I don’t want to mix business and pleasure, I don’t know. But anyway, I have been blogging about these coronavirus times, and how life has changed so much this past year. And one way that it’s changed from my board gaming hobby perspective is that I have fewer opportunities to sit down for tabletop gaming sessions. I haven’t been to a gaming convention since January!

So one way to compensate for that lack of real life gaming is to play digital versions of favorite games. I don’t mean video games; I mean computer programs that simulate board games, and there are actually quite a few good ones. You can play online against other people, or you can play a “local” game – meaning no network required – against the computer itself. You play against simulated “A.I. player” opponents.

Which takes me to the topic of this post, which is the quality of the A.I. opponents. What I have found is that for some games they are very good, and for others – not so much. Some games I win against the A.I.s every time, and others it’s more 50/50. Now there are two possible explanations for this: 1) I am better at some games than at others or 2) the A.I.s are programmed better for some games than for others.

I stole this graphic from a book about
A.I. game programming.

It seems obvious that it’s a bit of both. But then you have to wonder, in the case of both explanations: why?

Is there something about my cognitive psychology that makes some game designs or mechanics easier for me to figure out than others? It honestly seems that way to me. I generally do well at board games, but there are some that I struggle with compared to others. There are some that I have never won playing against other humans, even though I have won against those same people at other games. I’m sure that other board gamers understand the experience. So there must be some correlation between how my intellect works and what sorts of games I am good at.

As for the programmed A.I.s, well, there are two possibilities to consider. It could be that some games are inherently easier to program A.I. players for than others, and it could be that some programmers or programming teams made a better effort at the A.I. programming than others. Let’s face it, these projects have limited timelines and bugdgets, and if the programmers only made the A.I. so good before release day, that’s just the level of A.I. that everyone will have to live with.

A screenshot from Terraforming Mars, one of my favorite digital board games and one where I always beat the A.I.s.

If some games are easier to program A.I.s for than others, then the next question is – what are the parameters that make for a game that can be mastered by A.I.? Probably the most famous example of such a game is Chess: it’s common knowledge that a computer program beat a world Chess champion, back in 1997. And it just keeps getting worse for the humans. Another game that humans might as well retire from is Go.

Now, Chess and Go are both games that are simple in their rules, but strategically very deep. They also have no random elements, meaning all possible future paths of a game are determined, given the current game state. Computers have an innate advantage over humans in these sorts of games in that they have much more capacity for information storage, which allows for plotting ahead many moves – pretty much the key to winning these kinds of games.

The board games that I prefer have more complicated rules, generally because they are simulating some real life scenario like exploration and development, or world-building. They are what we call heavily thematic games. And they have some randomization to them – typically a deck of cards that are shuffled and dealt out, or drafted, to the players. This means the outcome isn’t deterministic, and there is some luck involved. You can have an advantage by chance, not just because of superior information processing ability.

But you would think that, even then, the A.I.’s would reign supreme. They just have to include the stochastic factor of the game in their algorithms. The only advantage humans should have might come from intuition – the old ‘gut feeling’ that might be able to predict, or even influence, random outcomes. This is a tantalizing possibility based on the idea of primacy of consciousness, but I won’t get into it any further in this post.

Now another thing about Chess and Go is that they are both games where you can be ranked compared to other players. If you are lower ranked than another player, you pretty much have no chance to beat them at the game. Improving your rank requires much practice. This is because of how strategically deep these games are.

The board games I like really aren’t as deep, despite being more complex in terms of total rules. I wonder if it would ever make sense to have rankings for such games; the closest thing to that would be win rates and high scores as tracked on the online gaming platforms. But those statistics alone don’t constitute a ranking in the Chess sense; they aren’t as strong a predictor of who would win a game, in part because of the random element.

Probably ranking systems for all these different board games won’t emerge, because there just isn’t as broad an interest in them as there is in classics like Chess and Go. And probably no A.I. will ever be programmed that plays them perfectly, to prove once and for all how inferior humans are. No one will bother to take the time, given how many of these board games there are and how niche they are.

Maybe when the Singularity comes, the A.I. net will finally get around to mastering every known board game, and put us humans in our place. Hopefully it will let us play against “dumbed down” A.I.s as we while away our pointless lives in our soylent green pods. It will help to pass the time.