Political Action Committee

In 2012 I contributed money to the reelection of Barack Obama. And while I am not happy with everything our president has done since the election, I am satisfied that on balance the actions of this administration remain far more aligned with my vision for our country than anything I had heard from the opposition party.

However, I have been comparing notes with my friends, and have discovered that we share one unfortunate collateral effect of our collective generosity: many emails a day from all sorts of political groups aligned with the Democratic party.

I get emails from concerned groups in Iowa, from Indiana, and from many other places in the U.S. far from where I live, all explaining that my $2 contribution is the only thing saving the great state of [fill in the blank] from political ruin.

I get urgent personal emails from Barack Obama, or Michelle Obama, or some famous rock star, all of which leave me wondering whether these so-called correspondents even know that such emails are being written in their names.

I receive emails wondering why I have not yet jumped on the absolutely free opportunity to meet Barack Obama. That particular gambit is clearly a way to gather “higher quality” names. If you respond, then you can be tagged as far more likely to donate money.

A few of these groups give you a way to opt out of their list, but most do not. The only way I know of to fight the rising tide is to add filters to my email program. But the people who do this apparently thought of that, because they keep switching the sender’s name and email address. Which makes me wonder — do they think I will send money just because I enjoy being annoyed?

I propose to start a Political Action Committee whose sole mission is to help people fight email spam from their own political party. Unlike most PACs, I believe this one will be equally popular with Republicans and Democrats, with those on the left and those on the right of the political spectrum.

At last, a cause behind which everyone can rally, a truly unifying mission to bring together our sadly divided nation.

We are going to raise so much money. 🙂

Gender specific complexity

I had a conversation this week with a game designer who targets her games specifically toward female players. The underlying premise of her game design approach is based on studies showing that, on average, girls and women are better at keeping track of large numbers of objects, whereas, on average, boys and men are better at keeping track of moving objects.

Much current game design privileges the latter skill, hence the common perception that boys are better than girls at playing computer games. Her argument is that alternate game mechanics based on “discovering things”, rather than “shooting things”, would be more interesting and fun for female players.

I suggested that this disparity might also explain some other cultural phenomena. For example, on average, boys seem to enjoy action films more than girls, whereas girls seem to enjoy romantic comedies more than boys. Perhaps, I said, this is because action films require an interest in following moving targets. A romance, in contrast, does not usually involve lots of objects flying around on the screen. But taken as a whole, it involves a much greater degree of complexity.

For example, to properly follow a Transformers film, you must be motivated to observe and understand the movements and locations of a large number of flying robots. But to properly follow “Pride and Prejudice”, you need to be motivated, and able, to observe and understand far more salient details than will ever be found in an action film.

To my game designer acquaintance this seemed like a plausible theory. Of course it has no scientific validity until somebody does a well designed controlled study. I wonder who would fund such a study?

The limits of artificial intelligence

Today I was trying to describe to someone my view on the limits of artificial intelligence, compared with the intelligence of the human brain, and I ended up drawing an image on the whiteboard to explain it.

I then went back to my computer and generated the image below, based on that sketch:

Basically, I see human intelligence as a kind of mountainous island in a sea of “how much human intelligence we can emulate with technology”.

As our technology gets better, the water level gradually rises, and we observe that the area of the island is gradually shrinking. This gives us a satisfying feeling that we are “solving” the problem of artificial intelligence.

Alas, only early successes are easy. The more we fill in the shallows, the more challenging things get, as we encounter the ever steeper slopes of human-like intelligence.

The real issue, as I understand it, is that center of the island — actual human intelligence — is vastly high, far taller than anything we are capable of doing with our current level of computation.

It is possible that many years from now we will manage to raise the sea level to the very top of the mountain. But I suspect that if this ever occurs, it will be so far in the future that nobody alive today will still be around when it happens.

Utility versus entertainment

The other day a friend was showing me a feature of his rented Car2Go. Because your only cost is a per-minute rental rate (the company takes care of everything else), it is in their interest that you get good gas mileage, and in general avoid doing things that add to wear and tear.

To this end, they provide a little game for the driver. The better you drive — accelerate smoothly, get better gas mileage, brake properly — the more points you score on a cute little game that is displayed on a screen near the dashboard.

My friend was quite addicted to this game. He said that not only does it lead him to drive better, but he also feels great whenever he manages to return the car with high scores.

I found the whole thing fascinating. “They are not just providing a rental car as a utility,” I said, “They are repositioning it as entertainment.”

He pointed out that cars have always had an entertainment component, and on one level I had to agree. After all, the utility of a $250,000 BMW as a vehicle for getting from one place to another is not what justifies its high price tag. At that level you are paying for the entertainment value of driving around in a beautiful high status car.

“But this is different,” I said, after thinking about it for a few minutes. Traditionally the entertainment value of a car is intimately connected to its ability to raise your social status. The game on the dashboard of the Car2Go has nothing to do with social status, unless you happen to tell your friends about it and they happen to be impressed.

You are playing a computer game, pure and simple. The rental company might be deriving a utility benefit, but to you the value of this game rests almost entirely in the entertainment value of playing it.

I would argue we are seeing here the emergence of something new, evidence of a fundamental shift in society: The information economy is now becoming so dominant, that it is even starting to take over the manufacturing economy.

Second wave feminism

I was with a group of fellow scientists recently on a selection committee that was charged with choosing sessions for an upcoming science conference. At some point we got to one submission that had a title something like “Women in science: Encouraging broader participation”. That’s not the exact title, but you get the idea.

One of the scientists said “Finally, a submission about gender!”

I turned to her and said “No, it’s about women.”

At which point I realized everybody was looking at me, and I would need to explain myself.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was just channeling my inner Simone de Beauvoir.”


I’m fascinated by words and phrases whose form is the opposite of their meaning. Sort of like an oxymoron, but on a meta-level.

One example that comes to mind is “to noun” — a term that describes the process of turning a verb into a noun. For example, an archeological dig, a witch hunt, a clam bake, are all examples of a verb being repurposed to serve as a noun.

They have all been nouned. Yet “to noun” is itself an example of a noun that has been repurposed to serve as a verb — exactly the opposite of nouning (I guess you could say it has been verbed).

What should we call these examples of the form of a word or phrase suggesting the opposite of its meaning, such as “breviloquent”, or “eschew obfuscation”?

I’m open to suggestions.

Level design

I was having lunch yesterday with a colleague who mentioned that her husband used to create hyper-fictional poetry in book form. His poems would appear in the same printed book at various levels of detail, to create a kind of printed hypertext.

She said he later had electronic hyperfiction versions of the book created, so that readers could interactively choose to dive into the poems to see the more detailed levels.

I asked whether that really worked. After all, in my experience people don’t always dive down to see all the levels in interactive hyperfiction. Often they are not even particularly aware that there are deeper levels to explore.

She agreed that in some ways the piece was hurt in just this way: A number of readers would now go through the entire experience by simply skimming the surface.

It occurred to me then that one interesting use of interactive games as a rhetorical device is to lead people into such deeper levels, which can so easily be missed in “folded” narratives. For example, the game Myst, which really was at heart about exploring a world, was structured as a mystery so that people would dive deep into the experience to try to solve that mystery. The real pay-off was the opportunity to explore its rich fictional world. The challenge of playing the game of Myst was a mechanism by which the designers of the world created an inviting path for people to keep exploring the world of Myst.

Maybe something that looks like a game doesn’t need to be primarily about being a game. Providing challenges to be solved can simply be a useful interaction technique to help lead people to a more complete exploration of a rich and complex fictional world.

Loco parentis

The other day a colleague told me he had a theory.

“What’s your theory?” I asked.

He said his theory was that some children like to eat dirt because they have an instinct to develop defenses against micro-organisms in their environment. It is a way to ensure the continued survival of the species.

“That makes sense,” I said. “And I have another theory.”

“What’s your theory?” he asked.

“My theory is that some parents like to stop children from eating dirt because they have an instinct to prevent the continued survival of the species.”

Circles 2 — the hand that holds the string

Given the general coolness of simple robots like thermostats, steam engine governors and telephone ringers, I already had the idea as a child that there is something wonderful about things that operate by going in cycles.

Then when I was thirteen I discovered that there really isn’t any such thing as a “sine wave” or a “cosine wave”. Every time you see something that looks like it is going back and forth to make a wave — like a pendulum, or a water ripple, or a guitar string — what’s really happening is that something is going in a circle. The reason it doesn’t look like a circle is that one of the two dimensions of the circle is hidden from you.

For example, the left to right movement of a pendulum is one dimension of a circle. The other dimension of this circle is the momentum of the swinging pendulum. Think about it — when the bob of the pendulum is in the center, it is moving the fastest, and when it is all the way to one side, it isn’t moving at all. Just like sines and cosines. In other words, the bob is really moving in a kind of circle.

Once I realized this, I saw that all sorts of things work this way — light, sound, tides, people’s changing moods — anything that has a repeating rhythm to it.

And movement in a circle just means always being pulled toward a point. It’s like when you twirl a rock around on a string. The string is always pulling the rock toward a point (in this case, your hand holding the string), so the rock goes in a circle.

For the pendulum or the guitar string or the ocean wave, that point is always there, constantly pulling something toward it. You can’t always see the hand that holds the string, but it is always there.


In honor of the most wondrous circle of them all, I decided to devote this solstice day to poetry.

      The longest day, the largest moon,
      Summer seemed to come too soon.

      Nothing ever seems to last,
      But memories of time long past.

      So near the moon, so long the day,
      Then why does time just slip away?

Tomorrow we will circle back to yesterday’s topic. 🙂