• Facebook Is No Longer a Communication Platform

    When I started using Facebook in 2005, it was exclusive to college students and was by far the best way to communicate with my classmates. It was the first time I could learn what my friends were up to without asking each one individually. Everything I wanted to know about my friends was in one easily accessible place.

    All recent updates were shown as one long list, but Facebook eventually introduced the News Feed. This was an effort to filter everyone’s updates to show just the most important ones. Facebook made educated guesses about whose updates were most important to you and hid the ones you wouldn’t care about. I think they also kept an option to see all updates in chronological order if you didn’t want to miss out on anything.

    News Feed seemed fine at first, but unfortunately it’s no longer useful as a way to keep in touch with people. Instead of showing you the updates that should be most important to you, Facebook now shows you the things that you are most likely to click on. Often, this means you only see pictures or videos on the home page.

    When people posted YouTube videos or links to articles, they got more clicks than regular status updates. Facebook liked that and started showing more and more videos and links in the News Feed, and this made them get even more clicks. At some point, people started noticing that posts about themselves got almost no attention, while links to content would get lots of reactions. People stopped posting about themselves and started posting links instead.

    Facebook prioritizes this kind of content so much that my News Feed doesn’t have any information about my friends anymore. It’s filled with posts by strangers that my friends have liked or commented on at some point. Because Facebook’s criteria for a good post is now so different from what we should expect, we have tragic situations like people never noticing that their friends were dying.

    Facebook no longer has any use to me as a communication platform. It has just turned into a click-generating machine.

  • Are Video Games Still For Kids?

    I grew up in the 90s, and back then video games were made for kids. Toys were for kids, and video games were just the newest, most exciting toys around.

    But as my generation grew up, we never really stopped playing games. As we became adults, the game companies kept making games for us, and games shifted to targeting an older audience. It makes sense that these would be successful since adults have more money to spend on games than kids do. Video games became a form of entertainment just like movies, and they started using serious storylines and graphic violence in the same ways.

    While this is great for the adults, I can’t help but feel that the kids are being left behind. The young adults making exciting new things are mostly making them for people like themselves, and very few companies are still focusing on entertainment for children. So now kids play Call of Duty, sign up for Facebook, watch YouTube, and are bombarded with content that really isn’t appropriate for their age.

    Nintendo is a shining exception. The Switch is designed to be family-friendly and has many games suitable for young children. I was recently in a shopping mall that was holding an event for kids to try out the new Mario game, and they had a Mario there to greet them and take pictures.

    Nintendo’s first steps in the mobile app industry - which is notorious for promoting competition and bad spending habits - includes games like Animal Crossing that have minimal payment mechanics and have only positive interactions between players.

    Even Nintendo’s eSports efforts include a focus on kids. Splatoon has held national tournaments exclusive to Elementary School students, to find the best Splatoon-playing kids in the country.

    Cynics will say that Nintendo’s strategy is to start making life-long customers from a young age, but I just think it’s nice to see a giant game company that hasn’t forgotten about the children.

  • Google's AlphaZero Destroys Stockfish In 100-Game Match

    Google’s AlphaZero program is a machine that plays chess, and it has managed to quickly become the strongest chess AI in the world by implementing machine learning techniques. While existing chess AIs have mostly been massive dictionaries of moves that are put together by humans, AlphaZero learned chess entirely on its own with minimal human input.

    As I understand it, the hardest part of creating an AI that solves problems like chess is finding some way to calculate if you’re winning or not. If that were easy to do, the program could just look at all of its possible moves (which is not very many for a computer) and see which one would leave it winning by more. The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell if you’re winning. You might need to consider all possible outcomes many moves in advance, which quickly becomes too many to calculate.

    Successful chess AI programs, of which Stockfish is the most popular, have a giant list of common board situations and good moves to make. An opening table lists moves that can happen towards the beginning of a match, and an endgame tablebase shows possible situations at the end of a match. The middle of a match is much more complicated and has far many more possibilities, so it’s difficult to create tables like this. The strength of a chess AI boils down to how big its tables are, and how quickly it can search them within the match’s time limits. But:

    [I]t took AlphaZero only four hours to “learn” chess. Sorry humans, you had a good run.

    That’s right – the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use “machine learning,” which is sometimes called “reinforced learning.” Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not “taught” the game in the traditional sense. No opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.

    I think this means that the program just played a lot of chess games on its own, and learned for itself what positions and moves lead to more wins. It’s possible that it built an intuition of how much it is winning, or how likely it is to get more ahead, at any point in a match. It can learn which moves don’t pay off immediately but might give an advantage later. Programs like Stockfish can’t really plan ahead, which is why they need to search their tables for the best move on every turn. AlphaZero isn’t limited by whether or not it was explicitly taught a certain situation. This ability also makes the searches much more efficient:

    Indeed, much like humans, AlphaZero searches fewer positions that its predecessors. The paper claims that it looks at “only” 80,000 positions per second, compared to Stockfish’s 70 million per second.

    That’s 0.01% of searching effort required, which gives a huge advantage over an entire match.

    If you’re interested, you can read the full paper here.

  • Pay to Win

    Mobile games can make a crazy amount of money. Puzzles and Dragons at its peak was said to be earning $100 million per month! Why do people spend so much?

    Mobile games are generally much more simple than traditional video games, so they can’t provide the same rich experiences as traditional video games. Instead, they engage their core users by providing a satisfying experience of winning, especially against other players. Since people often play mobile games in their spare time, money is used as a shortcut to win quickly and efficiently. The entire game’s structure is built around creating an environment to support people who are willing to pay large amounts of money in order to win.

    What are you paying for?

    Compared to more traditional games, mobile games at first glance don’t seem to be as fun. The storyline, if one exists, is usually kept simple. Skill is rarely a factor, and user interaction is limited; in many games, you just need to tap the screen repeatedly to progress.

    If you buy a good video game, you are paying for an engaging experience. You become a part of the world that the game makers have created for you. You directly control what happens in that world, and through some combination of time, effort, and skill, you can eventually “win” - which feels great.

    But a lot of people can’t invest much time and effort into games. Maybe they can only play for 5 minutes every morning while they wait for their bus, but they still want to have fun. And what’s more fun than winning? So games - especially the ones on your phone - started letting people pay money to skip all that time and effort, and start winning right away. They are paying for the experience of winning because winning is fun.

    Somebody who isn’t used to this idea might think that winning won’t feel good if you spend no time and effort. As it turns out though, many people are willing to spend a lot of money to win, and they feel good doing it. I think this is because people are able to think of time, effort, and money as resources that have comparative value. Time is money, as they say, and if you have some money but no time, then you spend what you can to have a good time.

    Games built for players who pay to win

    The best kind of winning is against real people who are also trying to win, so games that let people battle other players quickly became the most profitable. But if you have winners you need to have losers, too. If everybody started paying to win, some of those people would lose to others who paid more, and they would have reason to complain that they weren’t getting what they paid for. So these games needed to collect a population of players who were there to always lose, to keep the winners winning. This meant that the games needed to be fun to play even if you never won.

    Many games became entirely free to play and featured a progression system that rewards you for every minute you spend playing. Even you if you only have a few minutes to play, you can make immediate progress which continues to add up over time. Because everything you do leads to you advancing in the game, there is the dream that after enough time you might be able to start winning too. Of course, you would only be able to win against those who aren’t paying money. The players who are paying to win are untouchable, and people generally understood and accepted this.

    This progression system by itself can feel rewarding enough that people are willing to spend small amounts of money to skip some of the required time. An example of this would be a city-building game where you can wait an hour for your building to finish, or spend a few coins to finish it right away. Again, money is used as a substitute for time and effort, and people are OK with it. Competition stops being a factor in these cases, so the game essentially becomes a single player game.

    Paying to win in console games: the worst of both worlds

    Because these pay-to-win mechanics have been making so much money, larger game companies are starting to add similar features to their console games. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a recent example that has received a lot of backlash for its payment mechanics. Some of the points that have caused the most trouble are:

    • The game costs $60 to play but tries to make you spend even more money within the game
    • To unlock key characters, you need to spend either money or a lot of time and effort
    • To upgrade your characters, you need to spend either money or a lot of time and effort
    • If you don’t have strong characters or strong upgrades, it’s almost impossible to win in multiplayer mode

    (The game also features lootboxes, which give a random item in exchange for currency. There is also a lot of backlash about the lootbox system in general since you can spend a lot of money and still not get what you want, but that’s a separate big topic that I won’t get into here)

    I actually think that the first 3 points aren’t a big problem by themselves. Just like with mobile games, it’s fine if people choose to spend money instead of time and effort. Of course, the game might be making time requirements extremely long on purpose to make people want to spend money instead, and that would be unfortunate. In general though, the money vs time/effort tradeoff is a fair one to make. But this only works in single-player games.

    Competitive multiplayer games offer something very different to the player. $60 buys you entry to a playing field with fixed rules. How much you win, which is connected to how much fun you have, depends on your skill and effort. It’s understood that not everybody will win, but you’re at least promised a fair chance. If you’re not winning then the fault is yours.

    When players can pay to win it breaks that trust. It negates what you bought with that $60 package. Now it’s impossible to win against a group of users, regardless of your skill and effort. Even a progression system that improves your character over time is controversial. It’s fine to reward people for the time they spend, but there is a fine line between that and creating artificial barriers to punish people who don’t.

    Paying extra money to unlock Darth Vader quickly is fine. Making it extremely hard to win without Darth Vader is not. People are buying this game to test their skill again other players. When the game starts rewarding money spent over skill, these people are not getting what they paid for, and they have every right to complain.

  • Perils of Eroded Civic Knowledge Forewarned by Former Justice Souter

    This is extremely important.

  • Let’s stop the hate

    I’m a supporter of LGBT rights. I’m generally not too vocal about it, but with recent events culminating in the Orlando mass shootings, I had to say something.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the LGBT rights movement recently. Hopefully this effort can be another step forward following the Civil Rights Movement, as we work towards equal rights and treatment for all.

    The Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national orgin. Setting religion aside for a moment, the rest are distinctions that generally lead to noticeable physical differences. The ease of identification is probably one factor that helped the prejudice spread so much, and led to instituational disenfranchisement as well as terrible acts of discrimination and violence.

    Gay rights, though. There’s no real difference between gay people and straight people, transgender people and cisgender people. It’s just a preference; it’s how people feel. Why are we judging, discriminating, and even killing people based on how they think and feel? At this point an explicit anti-discrimination law is probably an essential step to stopping it, but honestly this feels like the sort of thing that we teach on posters in our primary school classrooms. It’s depressing that it needs a place in the Constitution of the United States of America.

    I don’t know if every anti-LGBT person comes from a religious perspective, but I think many do. If you believe that the Almighty says it’s a sin for two people of the same sex to love each other, then that’s a tough thing to reconcile. I get that. It’s a tragic situation, and it’s going to be hard to work out.

    But when it comes down to it, I believe that all major religions are centered around teaching love and respect. We can work together to make the world a better place, by cherishing our relationships with those around us. Religion can be a way to guide us, give us purpose, and achieve more than the sums of individual effort. That’s why I have no patience for those who twist religion to teach hate. We need it to stop.

  • Pluto - Closest Approach

    And here is the best picture we had previously, taken by Hubble. Pretty amazing stuff

    Pluto

  • A Striking Perspective on New York City Property Values | Metrocosm

    Property values across the U.S., where the area of each state has been substituted for its total property value.

  • The Night My Girlfriend Dissociated and Forgot Who I Was

    Because of her dissociative identity disorder, I was a stranger in the eyes of the woman I loved.

    Beautifully written, and a reminder that something like 50 First Dates is actually a terrifying situation

  • Ricky Jay’s Magical Secrets

    Ricky Jay is a legend, and is without a doubt one of my favorite magicians to watch. His shows leave you with a greater appreciation for the magician’s craft, rather than just the immediate illusion they present.