Unpleasant Design …

May 4, 2018

So, the first video that I’m going to look at from Extra Credits in my attempt to do more direct philosophical analysis is this one on Unpleasant Design, which is in fact pretty much just a video about philosophy and not about gaming. I’m going to touch on how this sort of design might impact games at the end, but the thrust of the video is all about real-world cases and applications. In general, it’s about attempts to design things like buildings, benches and all sorts of things in a way that they say “excludes a group of people” but really, in general, is to prevent certain things from happening by making it impossible or unpleasant for people to do those things but without explicitly banning or enforcing a ban on those activities. Their first example is about placing a number of bike racks under a bridge to prevent homeless people from sleeping there, but they also talk about designing park benches so that it’s uncomfortable for people to sleep there or even stay to long, or designing or painting the walls of buildings to discourage people from publicly urinating on them. Their main thrust is that these things are done to hide problems and so the money and effort should be spent on solving the problems and not on these sorts of unpleasant designs.

There’s a philosophical presumption that they don’t really acknowledge built into that, though: that because this targets a group — specifically homeless people — that this design approach itself is a problem rather than the intent. The issue is that even if we accept all of their presumptions about the intent of these things, the design approach itself is actually an ingenious way to achieve a common and natural design goal. No matter what, there are going to be things that a city or an area don’t want people to do in a certain area. They can invoke and enforce bans, but this is generally expensive and intrusive, and can often be confrontational, especially if it’s enforced by law. So, instead, what can be done is design the facilities so that people don’t want to use them for invalid purposes, while still allowing people to use them for valid ones. In the bike rack case, while that was almost certainly primarily useful for not having homeless people sleep there, people surely were indeed able to use them as well. If that was an area where bike racks were needed, it would produce the oft-desired “Kill two birds with one stone” solution, as people would be discouraged from sleeping somewhere they shouldn’t be sleeping, and bicyclists would get access to some much needed bike racks. So, in general, this sort of approach is the preferred way to deal with restricting actions that you don’t want to happen, as it discourages people from doing it without having to utilize massive enforcement resources to do so.

Now, of course it’s the case that at least sometimes the intent of the unpleasant design will be something that is invalid or immoral, but the video doesn’t really ever try to engage with that. There a number of valid reasons why the unpleasant design might be chosen over fixing the underlying problem. Taking the public restroom example, there is an issue that it isn’t as easy as they suggest to simply add more public restrooms. There is a cost involved, they can’t just be placed anywhere, and there’s also an additional maintenance cost to them as they have to be cleaned and potentially restocked on a regular basis (which is generally more than once a day). Simply adding more restrooms might not actually be feasible. Additionally, it’s possible that “having enough public restrooms” would mean having one every ten feet, because the reason that people were not using them wasn’t because they had no option, but because public urination was still more convenient. They might well have been able to walk to the nearest one and wait the length of time they would have to wait, but didn’t want to be bothered when using the side of a building was more convenient. Thus, by making using the side of a building less convenient they tipped the convenience scales towards using the facilities provided. Of course, it might still have been the case that there just weren’t enough public restrooms, but even in that case discouraging public urination was good design, not bad design.

The same thing can apply to the example of stores playing “uncool” music or using a simulated mosquito to discourage young people from using the store or its environs as a hang-out. If young people are not, in general, patrons of your store and just go there to hang out, that’s a problem for your store. It can block aisles and entrances so that your actual customers can’t or can’t be bothered to actually shop there, and can potentially be intimidating (especially since young people hanging out aren’t necessarily polite and respectful either). So if their doing so is likely to cost you business, then you’ll have to do something. You can come out and confront them to shoo them away on a frequent basis, or you can make it less cool for them to hang out there and so encourage them to move to a more appropriate location to hang out. The latter definitely seems to be the better option here, unless they want to claim that those young people should be able to hang out there even if they have no interest in buying anything and even if they are discouraging people who do from shopping there, which would certainly require justification.

Even the airport example could be more complicated than it seems at first glance. Certainly, less seating outside of shops and restaurants will encourage people to sit in the shops and restaurants which means that they’ll do better financially, but again adding more seating isn’t necessarily trivial. If you are in a place with a lot of foot traffic, adding more seating will create potential bottlenecks and force people to weave in and out of the seating to get to where they are going. If they’re in a hurry, then this will create frustration or even accidents, and a host of headaches for the managers. Thus, this “unpleasant design” seems again like a win-win: the shops and restaurants get more business, and it avoids cluttering up the main floor with seating and, in fact, even with people sitting down (because sitting on the floor in uncomfortable). While of course it’s not unreasonable to be cynical and suspect that the financial motive is the bigger driving force here, the counter that they could easily provide enough seating doesn’t really work either. And if they have to restrict seating, then their approach is a valid way to discourage people from doing that without having to directly enforce it.

And even if we accept their notion that the driving force behind the unpleasant design aimed at homeless people is to get them out of sight so that people aren’t bothered, unpleasant design is still a factor because even if you’re concerned about homeless people there are still going to be places where you don’t want them sleeping. If a homeless person decided to camp out at the front of my driveway so that I couldn’t drive out while they’re there, no matter how sympathetic I am to the homeless I’m going to make it clear that sleeping there isn’t an option. In the case of the bridge, since it was slated for demolition it might not have been safe for people to spend large amounts of time underneath it. If homeless people habitually sleep on bus stop or park benches will those be available for people who are waiting for a bus or resting in the park? Heck, even just sitting on those benches for too long is a problem, because if someone camps out there for, say, an entire day that means that no one else can use it that day. And since these things aren’t intended to be places for homeless people to live they couldn’t be used for their intended purpose. Unpleasant design aimed at making sure that they can be used for their intended purpose doesn’t seem quite so sinister when viewed in that light.

And even the cases where public outcry undoes the unpleasant design don’t seem like unvarnished goods. For the most part, all they do is restore one specific workaround for the homeless, but don’t really do anything to address the underlying issues. Yes, those homeless people can stay out of the rain under that bridge … or, at least, they can until it gets demolished. And even then they’re still sleeping under a bridge. And they can sleep on park benches and at bus stops again! I’m sure that that completely and totally thrills them; their life is now complete. The argument they make is that the thrust of these things is to hide the homeless so that those who are not can ignore them, but it seems to me that the campaigns they cite are just as bad, if not worse, as they allow people to feel like they’ve actually done something when, in reality, they haven’t done anything to address the underlying problem. Yes, homeless people have places to sleep again! Too bad that those places aren’t places they would sleep if they had a choice. The ideal approach would be to accept that they don’t want people sleeping there for some reason, but then insist that these people need some place to sleep and demand that something be done about that. As it is, these approaches let people feel like they’ve “helped” when they really haven’t.

So unpleasant design works well when you need to discourage people from doing things but don’t want to outright ban it in a harsh or artificial way. This brings me back to games, because this seems to be something that is great for video games. Video games will always have things that they don’t want their players to do, for various reasons. Instead of adding chest-high walls or invisible barriers, games will profit a lot from simply making it undesirable to take those actions in the first place. To take the bike rack example, if for some reason a game didn’t want players to rest under a bridge in-game, they could add obstructions that have some kind of use but make it impossible to lie down, so that the players can’t rest there no matter how much they might try (as the game keeps saying that you can’t lie down there). Sure, there’s a risk of games doing things simply to exclude a specific group, but if, say, they want to do a game focused on a male audience adding scantily clad female characters might immediately signal that this is such a male-focused game without having to actually say it on the box, like the store example above. And it’s an open question whether a game deciding to exclude a specific identifiable group is in and of itself bad.

Ultimately, the failing here is not separating the design itself from its intent, and so not properly analyzing the actions in light of what was intended. Unpleasant design is generally the right approach if you need to discourage something but don’t want to outright ban it and enforce that ban. For the most part, all of their examples assume that the intent is invalid and proceed to criticize the design on that basis alone, but they end up criticizing the approach because of the cases where the intent of it is at least reasonably invalid. Because of this, they don’t see why even in their examples things are more complicated than they appear, and why there may not be simple better solutions for the problem that they are trying to address. This, then, ends up being a prime example of the problems with shallow philosophy.

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Extra Credits Advocates for Philosophy of Gaming …

May 2, 2018

… they just don’t realize that’s what they’re looking for.

Recently, Extra Credits did a video advocating engaging academia in “Impractical Research”, meaning that instead of appealing to mathematics or psychology to try to get specific answers to specific and detailed questions in game design there should be more of a focus on questions that are less directly relevant to a game or games in general but instead address broad issues with games in general. These ranged from the sort of analysis that is done for literature and film to underlying ethical questions about game mechanisms and, presumably, about ethical presentations in games themselves. They also advocated for academia to engage with games with far more academic fields than is done currently.

It sounds to me like what they really want is to get philosophy engaged with games in a formal and perhaps deep way. For the ethical questions, it’s obvious that the go-to academic field for that is indeed philosophy. You aren’t going to find too many better fields if you want ethical questions examined, as even psychology doesn’t really have the focus on determining what it would even mean for something to be ethical or not (and so relies on preconceptions). But the biggest boon to building and promoting a formal and developed Philosophy of Gaming field is that philosophy is a field that is itself inherently academically diverse and interdisciplinary. Philosophy will use any field and talk about any issue in any field that it sees interesting or relevant to something it wants to talk about. For example, while philosophy is not necessarily the go-to field for critical analysis of games, it is a field that might take up the question of how analyzing a game or interactive medium is or has to be different from analyzing a static one. To do so, it’s going to look at all the relevant fields and take comments from them as examples on how to do analysis of a work, and decide what does and doesn’t work. I myself have already, in analyzing Anita Sarkeesian’s work, talked on a number of occasions about how a game being interactive doesn’t have the same sort of impact on a person that it does in a movie, because in an interactive medium the player has to specifically accept the conclusion, while in a static medium they can get sucked into thinking that the world itself just really is that way. This, of course, is a philosophical position, but at least parts of it can be tested with psychology, and philosophy has always been willing to ask the psychologists about things that are relevant to the philosophy, as has been done with ethics and Philosophy of Mind specifically. When I was taking philosophy courses, I learned about results in linguistics, psychology and even neuroscience while discussing mind. Philosophy of Gaming would certainly do the same.

And a number of issues I have with Extra Credits ends up being philosophical ones, or rather cases where they come to invalid philosophical conclusions or, at least, do shallow philosophy about deeper questions. As an example, in this specific video they make reference to their long series on the ethics of loot boxes, which I talked about, or at least I talked about one video, but where my overall impression of the series was that they didn’t ever get around to talking about how to make ethical loot boxes. They gave their view of what good loot boxes do — which I disagreed with — and talked about the legal issues — which I didn’t find all that interesting or relevant to the ethics of loot boxes, beyond setting out the lines they couldn’t cross — but didn’t really find any kind of summary or comment on what an ethical or unethical loot box would be. Thus, it seemed to me that in discussing the ethics of loot boxes they ended up leaving out … a discussion of the actual ethics of loot boxes. This is definitely something that a Philosophy of Gaming could help with.

So, at the end of the day, it seems that what they really should want to do is try to get philosophy engaged with video games and video game design. Given the current climate and how recently — relatively speaking — videos games have evolved into an art form, there’s a lot to talk about philosophically wrt video games, and lots of room for a Philosophy of Gaming to work out what things certain fields should study and what things shouldn’t be, opening up the room for other fields to productively engage with video games as well. I plan, over the next couple of weeks, to look at a number of the Extra Credits videos, looking at them more like a philosophical examination and less just as my own commentary on video games in general. This is convenient because recently they’ve done some fairly straight philosophical work and talked about specific philosophical issues — mostly ethics — with videos that I’ve wanted to comment on anyway, so maybe this is an opportunity for me to show what sorts of things a Philosophy of Gaming can do for video games.

Champions Cup

April 30, 2018

So, the final event of the 2017-2018 curling season happened over the weekend, the Champion’s Cup. Since this was the end of the four year Olympic Cycle — as teams are assembled to take a run at the Olympics and break up afterwards for various reasons — there were a number of fairly emotional goodbyes, as Jill Officer on Jennifer Jones’ is stepping away, and Val Sweeting is leaving to join an all-skip superteam under Kerri Einarson, and there are a number of shake-ups across the board.

Interestingly, Rachel Homan’s team is sticking together, and this led to an interesting final, between Homan’s team that’s sticking together, and Einarson’s team that is either going to be completely blown up or change names to team Tracey Fleury, depending on how you count the teams. And despite Rachel Homan not winning a game in the Player’s Championship and struggling out of the gate here — going 0 – 2 to start — they came through a must-win final round robin game, a tie breaker, and the playoffs to win 7 – 6. This pretty much demonstrates how Homan’s team played this season. Whereas in previous seasons the team was incredibly consistent — they had made something like 18 straight playoff rounds on the Grand Slam before missing them once early this season — this season they were very streaky, going through phases where they were dominant only to have that be followed by stretches where they were struggling, and back to being dominant again. It might have been the focus on getting to the Olympics that caused that, but they do need to figure out what caused that, because they are still one of the most dominant and most successful teams on the tour, and are likely to continue to be so for as long as they stay together.

Homan also repeated as Champion’s Cup champion this year, but the final game was a good one, with great shotmaking from both teams.

So that ends the 2017-2018 season. With all the changes, it will be interesting to see how the new teams do next season, especially the all-skip team of Kerri Einarson. The season starts up again in September.

More Net Neutrality

April 27, 2018

So, after the FCC in the United States dropped Net Neutrality regulations, a number of states have jumped on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, as I showed in an earlier post on the topic, most of them have no real idea how the Internet works, and Net Neutrality has become a buzzword that covers so many different things that it has become meaningless. I’m going to look at California’s proposed law to show that (which is referenced in the above Wired link).

First, again, the “Fast Lane” idea is brought up, and completely misunderstood:

The bill also leaves open the possibility of offering “fast lanes” for select content, but only at a customer’s discretion. Essentially, a carrier could allow you to pick a few applications to prioritize. For example, if you want to make sure your family’s video streaming doesn’t cut into your Skype calls, you could, hypothetically choose to prioritize Skype. But it must leave the selections to the customers, and not allow companies to pay for preferential treatment.

Except, as I pointed out in the original post linked above, that was never how “Fast Lanes” were going to work. What was almost certainly going to be the case was that additional infrastructure in the core was going to be added that would either have more available bandwidth or faster equipment — or both — and that the companies that required that would pay to get access to that. This would likely be accomplished by tagging the packets they sent with a tag in the header that the equipment would recognize and then route along the appropriate path. Thus, all of this was going to be done at the end that was sending the videos, not the side that was receiving them. Thus, at the customer side, nothing would be added and nothing would be done. It would all start from the company’s end and all the important things would be done long before the data reached the customer.

This “allowed” plan is completely different, as it’s all receiver/requester side. There are only two reasons that a customer could want this. The first is that the set-up inside their home that connects the routers to their own equipment is too slow to handle all of that bandwidth. There isn’t anything that the ISP can do about that, and I believe there are software and router solutions to allow this sort of prioritization. So no ISP is going to provide a solution for that kind of problem. The other reason is that there isn’t enough bandwidth on the line that comes from the outside equipment to the router to handle that load. In theory, an ISP could probably prioritize data at that point, although it would require them to deeply inspect the traffic or at least map the sending IP address to a specific destination address to do so. However, the preferred solution for them for these cases would be for the customer to upgrade to a faster Internet connection, which would make them more money. So, since this would require extra work on their end and would potentially cost them the money that the upgrade could provide, they would charge for it, and in general would charge more for doing it than it would cost to upgrade to a higher speed (since they can already do that without any extra work or software). Thus, this “possibility” will likely only be of use for people who are already at the highest speeds, or have very specific conditions that require the prioritization to be outside of their own routers and routing software. Somehow, I don’t really see this as being something that ISPs will rush to provide (and am not even really sure if there is any great demand for it now).

So, what the law allows for does not in any way address the issue that “Fast Lanes” were meant to address — which was that applications that required a lot of incredibly reliable bandwidth required equipment investments that telcos might not see extra profit from making — and instead allows a solution that customers may not want and ISPs aren’t going to see huge benefits from adding. This does not seem like a well-informed law to me.

This gets even worse when we look at a relatively new thing that wasn’t in most of the big Net Neutrality discussions, which is about things like “zero rating” and other ways to exclude some data from a customers download cap:

Wiener’s bill explicitly prohibits carriers from using interconnection agreements to circumvent its net neutrality rules, and bans certain types of zero rating. Broadband providers would no longer be able to exempt their own services from data caps, and they wouldn’t be allowed to selectively choose to exempt outside services from data caps, regardless of whether those services pay for the privilege or not. That means Verizon would no longer be able to zero rate live streaming National Football League games, even if the NFL doesn’t pay for the privilege.

Zero rating has long been controversial. Proponents argue that zero rating is consumer friendly because it lets customers use more data. Critics argue that it lets carriers pick winners and losers on the internet, which goes against the idea of net neutrality. The Obama-era FCC leaned towards the latter view. Towards the end of former FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s tenure in late 2016, the agency warned AT&T and Verizon, which exempts its Go90 video service from data caps, that their zero-rating practices were likely anticompetitive. But one of the first things Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai did after he was appointed by President Trump was end the agency’s investigation into the companies.

The California bill would allow zero rating in some cases. For example, a carrier could exempt a category of apps or services, as long as the exemption applied to all services in that category. T-Mobile’s Binge On and Music Freedom, which zero rate a large number of streaming video and music services, might be allowed. T-Mobile claims that all services that meet its technical requirements can be included in the service. The California bill would also allow carriers to zero rate all data under certain circumstances. For example, a provider could let people use unlimited amounts of data at night, but charge for data use during the day.

Now, “zero rating”, in this way, is a problem, and so it’s surprising how little attention it got in the original Net Neutrality debates. While excluding certain things from download caps does indeed allow customers to access more applications and more data-intensive applications before hitting their cap and having to pay more, in general it isn’t likely that they will use that to subscribe to two different competing apps, especially if they have to subscribe to both. It’s far more likely that they will be able to subscribe to both a video streaming service and an online game, say, because since both use a lot of bandwidth the cost of using both would exceed their cap and thus end up costing more than they are worth, and so they’d have to give up at least one of them. By being able to exclude their own, say, streaming service they give customers a reason to subscribe to theirs and not to their competitors, which is something that regulation might want to do something about. But this, then, is more about a business practice than about Net Neutrality.

And the law itself pretty much allows for that, by allowing ISPs to exempt full categories or to have day and time exemptions. But what’s interesting — especially in light of what is allowed for “fast lanes” — is that they don’t mention making these exemptions be at customer discretion. Being able to pay to exempt an MMO or streaming service, say, from my download cap seems pretty useful, and isn’t at all mentioned, and if it isn’t in the law then it might not be allowed because it wouldn’t be “Net Neutral”. And my experience with cable companies and the reasons given for why they, in general, couldn’t just allow complete choice — until, in Canada, the CRTC demanded they do it — was that the CRTC rules wouldn’t allow them to do what they needed in order to be able to provide that (my belief is that they were at least using the “Canadian content” rules as an excuse). Unless they see great money to be made from this, ISPs are likely to use the Net Neutrality rules as a reason not to do it, and to instead hold out for weakening Net Neutrality rules in other ways that benefit them along with doing this. Thus, this thing that would actually be really consumer-friendly won’t get off the ground until these laws are weakened.

Now, there are technical reasons why day and time and certain service exemptions might be useful for ISPs. Large downloads during peak times can slow the system and slow things down for everyone, so encouraging people to do these things outside of peak hours can make things better for everyone. And if certain applications aren’t an issue — because they aren’t time sensitive and so don’t have to get there right way — then excluding them allows them to focus on the content that is causing technical issues. But the law references them and, at least in the article, doesn’t reference another useful case that is similar to the “fast lane” one that is not that useful for “fast lanes”. Again, this does not seem like a well-informed law to me.

Does the Internet need some regulation? Sure. But what has struck me almost every time this whole “Net Neutrality” thing comes up is how little the people advocating for it seem to understand the Internet, and yet their voices end up being the loudest in this whole thing. That is how we’ll end up with terrible laws that people then point to to say how regulation is a bad thing and only hurts industry and consumers, and that’s not what we want. What we want is good, solid, well-informed regulation that works out best for everyone, ISPs and consumers alike. I don’t see us getting that this way.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 2

April 26, 2018

So, in Round 1, despite having paid much less attention to the NHL this year, I managed to do quite well, finishing with a record of 7 – 1, with my only blemish being not trusting Vegas to win their series. Home ice advantage also had a record of 7 – 1, as San Jose was the only team without home ice advantage to win a series. So since the second round starts tonight, let me give my predictions for that round.

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay vs Boston: Tampa Bay had an easier time of the first round, and Boston definitely looked vulnerable, especially when it comes to their goaltending. Tampa is at least as good a team as Boston on paper — if not better — and is playing better right now. So I’m taking Tampa Bay.

Prediction: Tampa Bay.

Washington vs Pittsburgh: This is a tough one. Pittsburgh has won the most recent series, and gone on to win the Stanley Cup after doing so. Washington is known to stumble in the playoffs. Pittsburgh is probably a deeper team than Washington. But on the other hand, Washington managed to dig themselves out of an early hole which will give them some confidence, Ovechkin is playing very well, and you have to figure that they’re due at some point. Given that Pittsburgh managed to beat Philadelphia by outscoring them but that Philly’s goaltending, as usual, wasn’t all that great, you have to think that this might be the year for it. And so, at the end of the day … I think I’m gonna go with that, since I have some room to make some mistakes since I did so well in the first round. Washington, you’d better not disappoint me again …

Prediction: Washington

Western Conference:

Nashville vs Winnipeg: Nashville is a very good team. But they had a harder time with a weaker opponent than Winnipeg did, and Winnipeg is also a very good team. This one should be close, but given the fact that Nashville looked more vulnerable in the first round than Winnipeg I’m going to side with Winnipeg here.

Prediction: Winnipeg

Vegas vs San Jose: So, my only error in the first round was arguably not taking Vegas seriously enough. Is now the time to believe that they are really, really for real? Or to just accept that they have home ice advantage and have beaten San Jose more times in the regular season and so have advantages that San Jose lacks? Or should I continue to believe that midnight will strike eventually for this team, and so it might as well be here, against at team that was more dominant in the first round than they were (even though both had sweeps)?

Heck with it, let me take the team with the official advantages this time and stop thinking of them as an expansion team.

Prediction: Vegas

Summary

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay vs Boston Correct
Washington vs Pittsburgh Correct

Western Conference

Nashville vs Winnipeg Correct
Vegas vs San Jose Correct

Overall Record: 11 – 1
Home Ice Advantage Team Record: 10 – 2

Persona 3 Replay …

April 25, 2018

So, after finishing Blue Reflection and getting a bit burned out on Dragon Age: Origins (I was in the Deep Roads and facing all the traps to get to the Anvil), I decided to try replaying Persona 3 and Persona 4 again, which I’ve wanted to do for ages now. I started trying to get my PSP version going so that I could play with the female protagonist again, but the battery seemed to have blistered a bit meaning that I couldn’t play it, so I dug up my PS2 version of FES and started playing it again. And was glad I did.

It’s amazing how well Persona 3 holds up. While the dungeons are still a bit boring and grindy — especially playing a NG+ with a level 99 protagonist — the social links are incredible. One of the things that Persona 3 does that other games don’t seem to manage is to set up new S-links directly from interactions inside existing S-links. While Blue Reflection had you find people to recruit as allies from missions given to you by your other allies, what it didn’t really do was just have you meet them that way, which Persona 3 does constantly. You meet Yuko after joining the Kendo team — she’s the manager — as part of Kaz’s S-link. Maya in the MMO S-link complains about a man at the mall who is the Devil S-link. Bebe returns the wallet of one of the bookstore owners, which is how you meet him. Later, Mako actually has you meet the dying person S-link. And so on. This really makes the world seem interconnected and there are numerous cases where you know your S-links but others know them as well, and not just through you.

And the S-links are both numerous and deep. Everyone has issues to address that carry on throughout the entire link, while being interspersed with lighter material and times. While the problems are important and things you need to resolve, they aren’t all there is to the characters either. Despite the interactions being a bit primitive — but no more so than you can find in any other game — the S-links are fun and you really do feel like you’re getting to know the other person. And even in Persona 3 they had the system that they perfected in Persona 5 where your S-links will let you know when they are available to be talked to and to have their links advance, with your school links approaching you at lunch time to ask if you want to hang out after school. In Persona 5, this is done through texts, and applies to all of your S-links, but the Persona 3 system is still a better start than pretty much anything else I’ve seen.

At first, the graphics turned me off, but that wasn’t because of the graphics style but instead because it seemed blurry and even a bit distorted at times, and far more so than I remember. I think this is because I was used to playing it on an Amiga monitor which is a lot sharper than the composite input of my inexpensive HD TV. Putting that aside, the graphics style is more than good enough to make the game enjoyable, and so graphics to that level on an HD system would probably be sufficient if someone wanted to put together a good Persona-style game.

Overall, it’s still a pretty good game, and better than the Persona-style games out there that I’ve played. And it’s a twelve year old game. It holds up really well.

Thoughts on “Ready Player One”

April 23, 2018

So, I finished reading “Ready Player One”, and overall found it … okay. I’m going to talk about it in detail, and even though the book isn’t that recent the movie is so I’ll continue below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Carrier On Moral Reasoning …

April 20, 2018

So, recently Richard Carrier put out a post about things to consider while doing moral reasoning. There are a number of issues with his moral system and moral reasoning that come up there, and so I want to go through some of them. The whole post is at the link if you want to look at some of the things I’m going to skip, and since it’s a bit disorganized itself my post here is probably going to jump around and back at bit, both in terms of what I reference from the post and in terms of the actual content I talk about, so be prepared.

Anyway, Carrier starts by talking about the Golden Rule, and then says this:

For example, you would not want your neighbor to neglect you if you were starving, therefore “do not neglect a starving neighbor.” This is not doing what you would not want done to you, yet amounts to positively doing what you would want done for you. Every positive action can be reframed as a negative being avoided. “Be generous” and “do not fail to be generous” are identical statements. That one is positive and the other negative is wholly irrelevant.

The problem is that in doing this he ignores a critical distinction, which is the difference between an action that is morally desirable and is morally obligatory. A maximally moral person will always want to help a starving neighbour, true. But does that mean that if they fail to help a starving neighbour that then then are acting immorally? Are they morally obliged to help a starving neighbour? It’s pretty easy to come up with cases, like the neighbour case, where while it would be morally desirable to do something and it is almost certainly the case that more moral people will do that, we also can see that it isn’t morally obligatory. Risking your life by running into a burning building to save someone’s life, for example. Or donating an organ to save someone else’s life. While we think that better people will do that, we also don’t really hold it against someone if they don’t. So there is, then, at least in theory a potential difference here, and the difference is that the negative statement always implies a moral obligation, while the positive one doesn’t. So you can’t simply take the positive statements, negate them, and come up with a statement that has the same moral force. It might, but in general the negative statement is going to have a stronger moral force than the positive one. In fact, a way to test for moral obligation is to take the positive statement, negate it, and see if it remains true. If it does, then it’s a moral obligation. If it isn’t, then it’s not. So taking Carrier’s example, we can see that “Help a starving neighbour” seems true morally, but “do not fail to help a starving neighbour” is far less certain, because it’s difficult to see how someone would necessarily be acting immorally if they didn’t.

Now, Carrier has long held a view that all moral classes — deontological, consequentialist, and Virtue Theory — are all the same, and can be reduced to each other. He continues that here, and unfortunately continues to start from a misinterpretation of Kant, assuming that Kant’s categorical imperative applies to what we would want to be the case rather than to what can be universalized without logical contradiction. It is always from the first that he derives the compatibility of Kant’s deontological view, at least, with consequentialsm:

The notion that circumstances and consequences must be disregarded is contrary to the Kantian principle itself, since we would never will to be a universal law that circumstances and consequences be disregarded.

But could we do that without logical contradiction? This is also a bit confusing, because it’s certainly the case that at least for any practical morality we are going to have to consider individual situations but deontological views will deny that the action is right simply because it produces a specific consequence or outcome. So while consequences and circumstances aren’t going to be irrelevant — and so can’t be disregarded — it’s never going to be the case that we can point to the consequence itself and say that that is what makes the action immoral or moral. Only by appealing to the general and set principles will we be able to determine what is morally right and what is morally wrong.

To be fair, most consequentialist theories have a set principle that is used to determine what the right or acceptable consequences are. But in general the distinction between those loose class of theories is that deontologists define the rules and act accordingly, and those rules aren’t adjusted if they produce a seemingly “bad” outcome, whereas for consequentialist views if the rule seems to be producing bad consequences it’s adjusted accordingly. In short, we are supposed to accept the consequences if we have justified the rule in deontological views, while in consequentialist views if the consequences don’t seem proper it’s far more reasonable for us to change the rule.

Carrier makes this comment about Kantian views in particular:

So-called “deontological” ethics (morals that derive from the nature of the act itself rather than its consequences) were first formally defended by Immanuel Kant, who declared the true moral rule to be that you ought to “act only in accordance with a rule that you can at the same time desire that it become a universal law.” Like the Golden Rule, this also leads to error when applied superficially. For example, some Kantians imagined this ruled out killing in self-defense, but in fact we “can at the same time desire that it become a universal law” that everyone be allowed to kill in self-defense. In fact, we probably would all will that to be the case.

The problem here is that the admonition against self-defense does not directly follow from the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, but from the second: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. If someone is trying to kill me, and I then kill them in self-defense, aren’t I really just using their life as a means to an end, the end of my own life? That would surely be treating them as merely a means, and that is therefore immoral. While most Kantians — and most moral codes, even that of the Stoics — can probably find a way to justify self-defense when someone is deliberately attempting to kill you, the interesting question arises when we talk about “innocent” self-defense (note, I read about this on a set of questions and answers after doing a search, but am not going to bother referencing it. Just note that this isn’t entirely my own idea). If someone is innocently threatening my life — ie they don’t intend to but the consequence of their actions will result in my death — am I allowed to kill them to save my own life if that’s the only way to do so? That seems to more directly contradict the idea of treating them as ends in themselves, but then again in most moral systems and even in our moral intuitions this is a case where most people will at least wonder if doing so is morally correct, so it wouldn’t be an error. Asking what we’d want to be the case in these cases isn’t going to settle the problem, and in fact shows the futility of interpreting the first formulation in the way Carrier does, because we want moral codes to tells us what we should do regardless of what we intuitively want to be the case. Yes, we all might agree that we’d like to be able to kill people, even innocent people, in self-defense, but does that, in and of itself, mean that we should? And if we shouldn’t want that, then we should change our wants.

(To be fair to Carrier, he doesn’t apply the rule that simplistically, noting that our wants can indeed be in error. But this just leads to an inherent tension in his view where he wants to appeal to our satisfaction to justify moral precepts while having to introduce all sorts of empirical claims to insist that we are getting our satisfaction wrong.)

And recognizing the second formulation also demonstrates the big incompatibility between Utilitarian views and Kantian ones, because Utilitarianism inherently reduces all people to means to produce the end of maximizing happiness. We are all expected to sacrifice our own ends and even personal happiness to produce the most happiness overall. So while Kantians insist that no one be treated as a means to an end — including ourselves — Utiltarians insist that everyone should be treated as a means to an end, including ourselves. You can try to reconcile them by appealing to the idea that Utilitarians would say that all people should have “maximizing global happiness” as their end, but this would be a shallow reconciliation, one that doesn’t actually resolve any of the issues and conflicts between the two systems.

Which, of course, is the precise level at which Carrier reconciles them:

And yet all the merits and problems of Mill’s system are analyzable with Kant’s rule: contrary to Kant, who actually was trying to overturn teleological ethics, we “can at the same time desire that it become a universal law” that we “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

So, here, the issue is that you can’t universalize the idea that you should always treat people as a means and never as an end, if for no other reason than that you need some end to appeal to. But Utilitarianism doesn’t insist on that, but only that at times people are treated as means to an end, and that probably is universalizable. So I think Carrier is right here that the first formulation doesn’t rule out Utilitarianism. (Of course, Kant derived the second formulation from the idea of our free will, so there still might be a conflict there). But that you might be able to universalize that principle doesn’t make them interestingly compatible if Kantians reject it, and Carrier’s second attempt to reconcile them doesn’t work any better:

Similarly, when we look at problems with Mill’s rule (e.g. it can lead to “the ends justifies the means” thinking which can result in causing widespread harm in the name of a “greater good,” an outcome we don’t like and don’t want to be on the harm-receiving end of), the same follows: we do not will that it be a universal law that the ends always justifies the means, therefore we do not in fact will that it be a universal law that we “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but that we act in respect of all individuals so far as we are able, because as individuals ourselves that is how we would want to be treated. Sometimes that requires causing harm as the lesser of two evils, but only when there is no third option (and even then it is not desirable but a forced necessity we have no reason to like).

If we don’t actually will that it be a universal law that we “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, then we are rejecting the basic Utilitarian principle, at which point we’d be trying to reconcile something that isn’t and can’t be Utilitarianism with Kantianism, defeating the entire point. Carrier can try to argue that sacrificing one person’s interests — or those of a minority — for the happiness of the majority will violate that rule — perhaps because most people won’t be happy in a society that advocates for that — but that’s, well, pretty much been the focus of most attempts to repair Utilitarianism, and doesn’t solve the problem: Kantians insist that you have to respect the wishes of each individual person, and Utilitarinism’s big benefit is that the wishes of each individual person must be subordinated to the happiness of the most people. Even if Carrier’s move worked, there’d still be a huge fundamental difference that would have to be resolved. So, no, they don’t reduce to each other.

Even at the level of agent-becoming this is the case: Kant might say that in doing a certain act (e.g. murder), we become a certain sort of person (e.g. a murderer), which is a consequence in and of itself that we would not like (were we to honestly admit the fact). But this is teleological thinking, and thus in accordance with Mill: part of the consequences to human happiness are indeed the consequences to the individual of becoming a certain sort of person in their actions (e.g. a mass murderer for “the greater good”), and the consequences to the society of endorsing it (e.g. a society that allows mass murder for “the greater good”), which may in and of themselves damage human happiness and thus run afoul of Mill’s own rule. Thus, no matter how you turn it, Mill and Kant were really just saying the same thing, and really just trying to explore the implications of the Golden Rule from different perspectives, neither in themselves complete.

Except that Kant would certainly not draw the conclusion that committing murder is wrong because it would make us not like who we are (a murderer) which would, presumably, make us less happy. Kant criticized the Stoics for being too focused on happiness (in his objection to Eudaimonic theories). And Mill wouldn’t argue that if you had to sacrifice the minority to save the lives of the majority that you would therefore be a “mass murderer”, because at least morally you wouldn’t be committing murder. So Carrier’s argument that they are saying the same thing relies on contorting the views to say things that they aren’t saying and would explicitly deny. If you’re willing to ignore what the views actually say, you can make them say anything, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve discovered something meaningful about them.

Carrier next turns to Virtue Theory:

The latter derives from the first logic-and-science-based moral philosopher whose work substantially survives for us to read it in its entirety: Aristotle. Aristotle would say that we ought to act in accord with those virtues of character the pursuit of which will lead to a life of personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and not in accord with those vices that will lead to a life of discontentment and dissatisfaction. Doing so will in turn produce a harmonious society, and we will enjoy the company and community of those behaving the same way.

This is again the same thing, only now we are looking not at rules of behavior but at their motivating dispositions (which David Hume would likewise focus on). This is therefore one more level deeper in analysis.

Putting aside the fact that Aristotle, in and of himself, likely wouldn’t justify the virtues simply on the basis of a harmonious society, there is reason to think that Virtue Theories and deontological/consequentialist theories don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The big issue Virtue Theories have to address is defining the virtues and vices, and it’s relatively easy to use another moral theory to define that and use the Virtue Theory to then determine what kind of person a virtuous person has to be (I take this approach in combining Kant and the Stoics). So this one isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, there are definitely certain deontological and consequentialist theories that are incompatible with Virtue Theory in general and with certain specific Virtue Theories, so they can’t be reduced to each other, so this doesn’t seem to get us very far.

Carrier then returns to his pet theory, hypothetical imperatives espoused by Philippa Foot. This is an issue for his attempts to reduce all moral theories to each other since Kant explicitly rejects hypothetical imperatives as being capable of producing morality, but that’s not important here. What is important is the ultimate end that Foot aims at:

Foot concluded that we ought to act in accordance with true facts of the world in such a way as to maximize our ability to love our life and get along with other people. Morality is therefore a system of hypothetical imperatives, aiming at the most efficient achievement of an over-arching goal, which is a fulfilling life within a well-functioning social system.

The thing is that at least Kant and the Stoics would deny that morality is determine by what will satisfy us, instead insisting that we must be satisfied by what is moral. Thus, if we find ourselves not being satisfied by acting morally, we need to change ourselves so that we are indeed satisfied by that. Foot’s views — and certainly Carrier’s derivations of them — have this the opposite way around, where if we find ourselves not being satisfied by morality, then there’s something wrong with our view of morality. Oh, sure, Carrier also appeals to us not simply being aware of the proper “facts”, but those definitely include moral facts. Thus, it is possible for them that we need to change our view of morality if it isn’t making us happy, which both Kant and the Stoics deny. That’s a pretty fundamental disagreement to resolve, and Carrier doesn’t, in fact, resolve it.

He also says this about the view:

Foot, in my opinion, is the only philosopher who saw the forrest for the trees, and produced the most correct and usable analysis of moral reasoning and its proper roots and motivations.

Of course he’d say that, because it allows him to pursue his own satisfaction and never really have to choose between making himself happy or acting morally. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, as Enlightened Egoism not only allows for the same thing, but is explicitly the same thing, and I suspect that Carrier is not, at least openly, as sympathetic to that view as he is to others. However, his derivation of Foot seems, to me, to pretty much be Enlightened Egoism. And this follows on in his discussion of “risk”:

We might now say this in terms of risk theory: the probability of that outcome is greater on that behavior than on any alternative behavior, such that even if the outcome is not guaranteed, it is still only rational to engage the behavior that will have the greatest likelihood of the desired outcome. By analogy with vaccines that have an adverse reaction rate: when the probability of an adverse reaction is thousands of times less than the probability of contracting the disease being vaccinated against, it is not rational to complain that, when you suffer an adverse reaction from that vaccine, being vaccinated was the incorrect decision. To the contrary, it remained the best decision at the time, because the probability of a worse outcome was greater at the time for a decision not to be vaccinated. Analogously, that some evil people prosper is not a valid argument for following their approach, since for every such person attempting that, thousands will be ground under in misery, and only scant few will roll the lucky dice. It is not rational to gamble on an outcome thousands to one against, when failure entails misery, and by an easy difference in behavioral disposition you can ensure a sufficiently satisfying outcome with odds thousands to one in favor—as then misery is thousands to one against rather than thousands to one in favor. This is also why pointing to good people ending in misery is not a valid argument against being good.

The problem here is that Carrier has no grounds for talking about “evil” people, or even “good” people, outside of his moral system. So if someone is pursuing their own satisfaction, determines that an act that Carrier would call “evil” will definitely increase that, and is right about that, then Carrier has no grounds on which to claim that what they did was actually evil. He talks about risk here, but it is certainly conceivable to think of cases where the risk that being “good” will result in less satisfaction is higher than the risk that being “evil” will. In fact, almost all moral dilemmas are built around such cases, where I will be objectively worse off if I act morally, but the action is clearly the “good” thing to do. And I return to the example of Russell from the first episode of “Angel”, where he says that he follows the rules and pays his taxes, and in return he gets to do whatever he wants. Surely it was the case that the risk of Angel coming along and being willing to murder him in broad daylight was less than the probability that he’d be able to keep going on being “evil” and thus be able to pursue his interests indefinitely. How does Carrier refute that case? Even society isn’t inordinately harmed by that, and having an “evil” society can obviously benefit people who are in a position to exploit, which means that they have the power to impose it on others. As long as the society is beneficial to most people enough to forestall revolution, on what grounds can Carrier insist that these “evil” people are assessing their own interests incorrectly?

Carrier talks a bit about it later, but the general refutation of his “better society” idea is that the ideal is for all of those pro-social attitudes to hold and for everyone to act on them unless they can get away with it. Even if in practice this produces the same society — almost everyone all the time acts pro-socially because they don’t want to take the risk — there’s a difference between acting pro-socially when you perceive that it will benefit you and being a pro-social person. The former is Enlightened Egoism, and is the view Carrier holds. The latter is, at least, what Virtue Theories would insist on.

Carrier then insists that tit-for-tat and the Golden Rule are not incompatible:

Notably, contrary to some analyses, tit-for-tat does not actually contradict the Golden Rue, but actually correctly realizes it, in the same ways I noted above. To satisfy the Golden Rule, as much and what kind of mercy and forgiveness we would want, must correspond to the amount and kind we give to others. And when we think that through, we’ll realize we would not really want everyone to let us exploit them without retaliation. Because that means letting them do the same to us. And the world that would result would be disastrous for us. We would not will that to be a universal law.

The problem here, again, is that they start from two completely different principles. The Golden Rule is a guide for behaviour, and is optimistic in that in its application it actually presumes that everyone ought to — and so, hopefully will — follow it. Tit-for-tat actually assumes that people will, in fact, treat people badly if given a chance, and so enacts harsh penalties for people who do so. We can see this by looking at the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Golden Rule would engender trust, and so we wouldn’t betray our partner because we wouldn’t want them to betray us. Thus, there would never be any reason for anyone to betray, and in an ideally Golden Rule world, betrayal in those circumstances would inconceivable. However, with the tit-for-tat approach, all that would stop someone from betraying would be knowing that the other person will retaliate when they can. We would always be willing to assume that they would betray if they felt the retaliation wasn’t going to be a strong enough motivation. And, in line with his comment above, we’d always want it to be the case that others follow the rules while we don’t, but we’d know that much of the time we couldn’t get away with it. But if we could get away with it, due to imbalances of power or secrecy, we would. And yes, we’d know or expect others to do that, too. At the end of it all, we might end up with precisely the same sort of societies — as no one would feel that they can get away with those sorts of actions — but the Golden Rule world is a world of trust, and the tit-for-tat world is a world that runs necessarily on constant vigilance and distrust. So, no, tit-for-tat does not “correctly” realize what the Golden Rules asks of us.

And, finally, let’s talk about villainy:

In the end, everyone sane enough to understand the matter wants to be the hero and not the villain in the world. Are you the sort of person you like, or the sort of person that in fact you loathe? The truth, once honestly realized rather than delusionally hiding from, may lead you to loathe rather than like yourself. And no life satisfaction can then be possible. That can only be solved in either of two ways: changing the sort of person you are (which requires a lot of continuous work, contemplation, habituation, and practice); or lying to yourself about the sort of person you actually are. But can you be comfortable knowing that maybe you are the one living a lie? That really, you are an awful person, whom even you would hate?

But what, to Carrier, counts as a villain here? How do I determine what the right person to be is if the only basis Carrier gives for determining that is my own satisfaction and that’s exactly what I’m questioning here? If I’m happy doing “evil” things and someone calls me evil for doing them, am I necessarily wrong? Yes, if I’m unhappy then I have reason to ask whether I should change, but not if I’m happy.

And this ignores the big thing about heroes: heroes are heroes not because they are happy, but because they are happy being good. A hero can sacrifice everything that generally gives our lives satisfaction and still, in the end, at least be content because they did it in the service of doing good. Carrier’s view defines good as being happy, and so at best is circular and at worst would treat the “hero” as someone misguided for sacrificing what gives our lives satisfaction. The person who gives up their greatest dream for someone else is not a good person, not the hero, but is someone who has done the wrong thing. Maybe.

Carrier can’t escape this by appealing to empirical data, because he has to settle what criteria is used for good before he can determine what the empirical data means. If he sticks to the simple idea of satisfaction — as he usually does when citing empirical data — then these problems arise. And if he tries to expand it — as he usually does when talking about “evil” and “good” people — then he needs to have a criteria for what is really satisfying, even if most people don’t think it such. Either way, villainy and heroism is far more complicated for Carrier than he will admit.

And, ultimately, that’s my comment on Carrier and morality: morality is far more complicated than Carrier will admit or understands.

Final Thoughts on Blue Reflection

April 18, 2018

At the end, when you go around to talk to all of your companions about the huge decision you’re supposed to make and when you face off against the final boss who talks about doing something that no human should want because it would be better off for humanity, the game finally, finally started to give me the feeling that a Persona game gives me. I think the game series has potential if it can improve on its stumbles and figure out how to make the things it does well work, and so I hope it does well-enough to spawn a sequel. But as a game itself, it’s at best a “Meh”.

I’m going to talk about the plot in detail, so the rest will be below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Born in the USA …

April 16, 2018

So, the Player’s Championship was this weekend, and Jennifer Jones was defeated by Jamie Sinclair, who was born in Alaska and raised in Ottawa, and ended up being recruited by the U.S. curling federation and then disappointingly lost the trials to go to the Olympics. She ended up breaking Jennifer Jones’ 27 game winning streak, stopping her from making it 28. She also became the first American team to win a Grand Slam of Curling title. And I found it really neat that when she won, the arena PA system immediately spun up “Born in the U.S.A.” for her … even though the song gives a more depressing idea of America than you’d think appropriate for such a big win.

And it was actually a big win, as Sinclair won 7 – 2. She stole 4 in the first four ends — stealing 1, 2, and 1 in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ends, with the 1st end being a blank — and then rode that to the victory. Jones took one in the fifth and stole one in the sixth, before Sinclair taking three in the seventh sealed the victory and ended the game.

One thing that I noticed watching the Grand Slam again after watching the Olympics, Scotties and World Championships is the difference between the 8 end games of the Grand Slam and the 10 end games of the international tournaments. Despite the general consensus that the five rock rule makes comebacks easier than the four rock rule, there were a lot of comebacks in the international tournaments I watched. The reason for that, it seems to me, is that with the ten end games there’s just more time to come back than there is with the eight end games. After five ends in the Jones/Sinclair game, Jones was down 4 – 1. That meant that in the sixth she had to press for a steal, as if she forced Sinclair she’d be down by four with two ends left, and couldn’t afford to blank or even take less than two or three, and still have to hope for a steal to take it to extra ends. In a ten end game, she could force Sinclair, take two herself in the seventh, and only be down by two with three to play. If she managed to get three, then she’d be right back in the game. The ten end games allow for more strategy and for teams to either extend their leads or make comebacks more gradually, with good strategy rather than aggressive shot-making.

However, curling is trying to fix the perception that it is boring by promoting that sort of aggressive play. At one point, they talked to Kaitlyn Lawes about mixed doubles, and both she and the commentators talked about how many people really like the speed of mixed doubles and that that sort of thing is the future of curling. The problem is that I found the mixed doubles faster, sure, but not more interesting, because it relied a lot on loading up the centre and missing less shots than your opponent did. It relied on this so much that invoking the “power play” — which was supposed to be used to generate more points — in general resulted in fewer big ends than without the power play. That’s fast and exciting, but it’s not very strategic or tactical. Reducing the number of ends results in shorter games — 2.5 hours vs 3, generally — but it doesn’t allow for the chess match and move/countermove style of curling that is what I enjoy. If this is the future of curling, I may not watch as much curling as I do now.

And on a final note, Rachel Homan returned to curling after her disappointing Olympics … and promptly went 0 – 5. They took some time off after the Olympics and don’t play well after a layoff, but that was still a disappointing result. I’m very curious to see what happens with their team after the season, because the period after an Olympic cycle always brings a lot of changes, two of their members are out in Alberta right now as far as I can recall, and they haven’t said anything yet about whether they are staying together or not.

The last tournament of this season is the Champion’s Cup starting on the 24th.