Der Blaue Reiter on Form

Category : Art · No Comments · by Nov 23rd, 2017

“And so as a last conclusion, it must be established that it is not most important whether the form is personal, national, or has style; whether or not it is in accordance with the major contemporary movements; whether or not it is related to many or few other forms; whether or not it stands completely by itself: but rather the most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of the inner necessity. The greater the epoch is–that is, the greater (quantitatively and qualitatively) the strivings toward the spiritual are–the richer in number the forms become.”

From “On the Problem of Form”: http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/kandinskytext5.htm

Ivan Galamian on Renowned Violinists

Category : Art, Music · No Comments · by May 19th, 2016

Came across this text in Ivan Galamian’s “Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching”. Ivan Galamian is a world-renowned violin teacher who has instructed the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell. I’m surprised that this text is nowhere to be found on the internet, so I decided to transcribe a copy (emphasis in the original):

One student asked, “When there are so many fantastic violinists, why is it that so few of them become world famous as soloists?” Mr. Galamian’s thoughtful reply to this question follows:

“It is because, to become world famous, talent and genius are not enough. One has to be endowed with a brilliant mind that can work like lightning; with an ability to concentrate for long periods of time; with the personal drive, willpower, and perseverance to do the necessary years of preparation; and with the hands and innate muscular qualities of flexibility that makes possible the brilliant technique required. Further, musicality, the fine ear, must be innate; the personality should have appeal for the universal audience, and a high degree of personal magnetism must be present to carry the audience along, musically and emotionally. There must be musical understanding, creativeness, and imagination in the interpretation. It is only rarely in a generation that all of these things come together in one person. The lack of any single factor may prevent the achieving of world-renowned status.”

November Meditations

Throughout the month of November I finally found the time to clear my list thoughts and observations about everyday life. This is a project that I have started since summer, and while some answers were not thorough, I can honestly say that the observations made and the habit of constantly thinking has served me tremendously.

This doesn’t mean I’m done thinking about life questions. I believe that there will be a new wave of questions when I start reading rationalist literature. However, the questions will probably come less frequently now, as I shift my focus toward acquiring new skills.

EDIT: To improve readability, I grouped my thoughts loosely into five groups: self-efficacy, execution, communication, metaphysics, and personal notes. This way, the thoughts are arranged in order of averageness to the reader, and there’s room for breaks. Have fun!

Self-Efficacy

  1. One of the best free things you can get is to listen to criticism. The better you are at accepting them, the more your abilities will skyrocket. It is easy for people to criticize, so they will gladly do it. However, the end product is something that combines a unique perspective and (hopefully) good taste in a small amount of time. Collect all the criticisms, especially from people you respect! They are cheap and immensely useful.
  2. A good metaphor for criticism is as getting what other’s people prior on “what’s good” is, then clustering to get something that bests all individual parts.
  3. Along the same line as above, another free thing is to critically examine your own work. Once you get over the initial “ugh”, you will learn how to improve, and learn about the act of improving.
  4. Don’t let the previous two rules affect your confidence. If they have, you have taken the criticism personally. Try to never take criticisms personally.
  5. Innate ability is overrated.
  6. People seek a high-or-impossible-level of certainly when answering some specific questions relating to self-confidence or morality. This may prevent them from taking certain risks or feel comfortable as themselves.
  7. Normality often does not have intrinsic value. In the art world, they might actually have negative value. Try at times to see without the lens of normality. This could entail seeing something as if you are looking at it for the first time or imagining something to be a lot more different than what you think it is.
  8. People are scared of thinking for several reasons: 1.) nationalism often try to combat critical thinking 2.) thinking usually implies going into the unfamiliar, which is scary to many people. Under this narrative, it is very easy to persuade people to be afraid of thinking.
  9. Do not care about college rankings. In fact, do not care about the ranking of anything you didn’t help in creating. In fact, do not care about rankings of random people. There’s too much variance.
  10. If you find yourself caring too much about what other things, consider whether you have been exposed currently to any other criteria for judging quality. It is natural to use public opinion as a basis, and it is oftentimes the default criteria on which performances are measured.
  11. Worldly success is not necessarily a more reliable indicator of satisfaction than affinity to reason.
  12. Loving others are work is not mutually exclusive.
  13. Ability to be critical is one of the most important aspect of the arts. It defines the ceiling of one’s accomplishments.
  14. For personal growth, try to understand yourself relative to others. The more you know about where you stand in comparison to others, the easier it is to be confident.
  15. Strength of ambition and clarity of goals usually end up determining how far people will go.
  16. Find internal motivations rather than external motivations.
  17. From an economical perspective, it makes sense for people to stagger their replies (at this with the current means of communication).
  18. Use movies/games at the right time can do a lot to relieve stress or isolation.
  19. System 1 (consult Thinking Fast and Slow) is bad for making decisions about self-worth or proficiency. Avoid using system one for these evaluation.
  20. Your rate of decrease in self-confidence, in case where your find yourself contradicting or distancing the people you respect, should be proportional to duration of distancing and inversely proportional to amount of personal experience. Apply a lot of reasoning and care before lowering self-confidence. This should drop very slowly: barely for a long time, then exponentially with more drop-off in light of higher/repeated durations of distancing.
  21. Don’t try to learn things for the sake of impressing others. It’s not a very consistent motivator.

Execution

  1. Errors/delays are more costly the longer they are in place, but this rate of cost increase is very dependent on the original task. In this way tasks can be strategically prioritized.
  2. Some would consider reading productive, but I think it only is so when the reader is specifically aiming for breadth or depth in a particular topic. Articles and aimless readings lags in productivity when compared to direct thinking.
  3. Freedom is deceptive. Suppose there is a tradeoff between options to do normal things and ability to accomplish more interesting things. In this case, I think one increases freedom by giving up the prior for the latter. Metaphorically, spaces that contain possibilities that interest you can be considered much more dense in freedom than spaces containing uninteresting possibilities, since the prior is what we want to accomplish anyway. It can be liberating to give up a lot of uninteresting options for small additional possibilities in the interesting options.
  4. Vertical set of skills/knowledge in a domain increase quality and speed. Horizontal set of skills/knowledge in a domain increases possible outcomes and novelty. The speed increase in prior mainly comes from superior debugging abilities.
  5. Other than speaking, writing is the most straightforward way to showcase mental abilities and persuade. The process aids thinking as well.
  6. We are hardwired to pay attention to certain things: other people, things about me, free things, danger, bright lights, etc. When thinking, it is best to be on a path that avoids such potential distractions. Using earbuds & sunglasses to block out signals is usually fairly effective.
  7. To a certain extent distractions are useful because they are also where interesting thoughts may emerge. A potentially good way to monitor distractions is to backtrace the source of the thought, determine whether similar distractions might be potentially useful, and to find ways to prevent that distraction from occurring again if not.
  8. For me, attention often disintegrates when the body is under stress. Lack of attention is noticeable and almost always associated with tiredness. This makes exercise a higher priority.
  9. Some systems, such as art or stock markets, are chaotic enough such that building an accurate mental model is tough to impossible. In such cases, try to get a ton of data points and approximate a mental model, but make it flexible enough to add new information.
  10. Should we spend our life doing small good things or build up to a larger good? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that prefers the prior or the latter, since the latter is understood to grow faster than linear.
  11. Invest in epistemic curiosity, even if it might not seem directly relevant to goals. No need to act on the curiosity, but opportunity to satisfy them might often present itself.
  12. Prioritize different tasks based on their expected utility and the dependence of that utility upon time. For example, many tasks are not time sensitive, so they could be drastically delayed.
  13. It is notable that ideologies can sometimes produce incredible results by removing the sense of doubt that was in the way. This might be how people face up to tasks that seem impossible. A potentially useful application of ideologies may to bet on heuristics that you are not certain of but seems immensely powerful if do believed and low risk if not in fact true. For example: never stop creating.
  14. As in the case of taking feedback, ego often stands in the way of progress. Recognizing when ego stands in the way and removing such obstacles is a painful task, but this makes it more worthwhile because it’s something with lifelong benefits and something that others seldom do.
  15. To read books productively (not to be confused with leisurely). Read the book and take notes so that you will only be reading it once. Skim if necessary. Group books on similar topics to similar time periods so that the subject matter is almost the top thing on your mind for that time period. This is crucial for any complicated subjects.
  16. It is easy to criticize a work, but difficult to appreciate one. The previous tells us what not to do, but the latter can tell us what do to, which is augmented by what not to do when you want to do it. This can be really valuable! Every strength and flaw exist for a reason, and to be able to find what makes a strength a strength and why it was lost can be useful. This especially applies to works where the author attempts to address something personal and important, as these tend to tell you the most valuable things about the human condition.
  17. Rules of optimal multiplexing (multi-tasking): multiplexing is useful in two scenarios, a.) when you are in a situation where multiple tasks can be done without competing for cognitive resources, e.g. listening to audiobooks while driving or in longer terms, thinking about the future while working on a desired job. b.) when two tasks performed together gives rise to an interconnectedness than can be expected to improve both, e.g. talking a walk while thinking, learning about neuroscience and artificial intelligence at the same time. Note that both a.) and b.) applies to both short term and long term time scales. Outside of these contexts, context switch is too expensive to pursue tasks in parallel. If multiple things need to be accomplished in short order, parallelize related ones and serialize the others.
  18. The useful parts of history concern change – getting data about change allows you to fully understand why the current state of things are what they are, what could be changed, what needs to happen to instigate that change, what is currently changing, and what is completely unexplored. However, learning about history is also costly in terms of time investment and domain specificity. It’s a heavyhanded tool. I suggest using it on domains where you have a strong desire to excel in.
  19. Acknowledging that your way to think is not the only efficient/correct way to think is likely a good proposition. This should in theory be treated the same as any question – bayesian reasoning should be used to determine the answer. However, but since this question may have wide implications on the evolution of your thoughts, extra care should be taken to avoid ideologies forming.
  20. It’s better to opt-out of having any sides in absence of information. Try to maintain and be consistent and well-calibrated with your confidence levels.
  21. Time not spent on a task is basically time gained.
  22. When a constraint seriously limit your options, consider moving to an area where the presence of the constraint has no effect on the result. This is equal to removing a constraint entirely.
  23. Looking at things from economical perspectives remove a lot of potential anguish. Often it is the case that instead of decrying that the public lacks some moral quality, considering the phenomenon as a problem to be systematically solved is more effective. Even without proposing a solution, the economical view can be liberating in removing the sense of anguish (such as “why did we only care about ISIS when France gets attacked?”).
  24. It’s easy to enter a state of “tunnel vision” when one determines a fixed method to approach a goal and focus on the method rather than the goal. Try to step back and reconsider potential other methods at times.
  25. Like things broadly to keep yourself open and sociable, but keep a level of critical judgement even on new subjects. Liking things broadly is especially useful for world-building.
  26. There are several explanations on why people get their “just desserts”, whether for good or for bad things. It is probably possible to maximize for fortitudinous encounters.
  27. If a problem recurs, try either specify the problem more or root cause analysis.  Lack of the first tool leads to misplaced faith, whereas the second one recounts recurring problems. Need to figure out which one is the case.
  28. Heuristics like those listed here needs to be double-checked if used in high-risk scenarios.
  29. Rationalism is a dangerous banner. Do not assume that your ideas are bullet-proof because you are a rationalist.
  30. When it comes to people, quality trumps quantity.
  31. Most choices in life can be describe in terms of the good and the bad. When considering these choices, replace positive and negative connotations with neutral ones first, and assume that the speaker has no authority.
  32. Beware of adages and spiritual wisdoms. Consider whether the source has biases, of whether a lack of clear reasoning is intentionally or unintentionally obfuscated.
  33. Drive and energy is the raw fuel that converts to execution. Other ways to be better at doing things: let nothing stand in the way, especially personal feelings. Be willing to do what is good for the goal. Study how people works. Try to allocate more resources to planning. Drop small priorities.
  34. It’s ok to drift apart from your goal, as long as you keep your eyes on the goal and know a course back.
  35. Whether learning or doing, use things you passionate about to motivate you.
  36. Approach large tasks methodologically, breaking larger tasks to smaller tasks if performance is struggling. Do not take too long to find out whether you are struggling or not by checking yourself for improvements.
  37. Timebox you training activities per day.
  38. Keep concentration by increasing components of feedback in your work, holding yourself to high standards, and having clear goals.
  39. Compare your works to that of the very best. AB test.
  40. For quality of work, do not expect skills to be acquired within a rigid time frame.

Communication

  1. I find blogs to be my preferred method for facilitating conversations for several reasons, and these correspond somewhat to reasons I find 1-on-1 conversations more pleasant. Participation of discussions in blogs are not only voluntary, but actually has a higher barrier to entry than social media. This sets a higher bar for the quality of discussions. On blog sites there are usually very few distractions pulling people away from their thoughts, and the writer is less subject to judgement from outsiders than on social media. Email is theoretically as good, but lack the sense of permanence that blog posts have.
  2. Delays may serve as a communication tool in any medium, not just conversation.
  3. Conversation can be seen as tango. The goal is to make the other person feel great coming out of the conversation. Just as in tango, it is required to a certain extent that the other person is interested in conversation. The leading partner in tango seeks joy through micro-adjusting the dance to create an optimal experience for the follower, and this entails knowing what the other person knows and wants. The leading person in a conversation very much does the same thing.
  4. The quality of any form of communication (e.g. art, writing) depends strongly on its coherence.
  5. Lack of coherence emerges often from multiple sessions of modifications, since each approach comes with slightly different mindset. This can be combatted through refactoring or simply becoming faster at finishing a work. Forming a habit of finishing work fast is useful in multiple ways, but I think this is one of the most useful.
  6. A lot of subtle sources of emotions can probably be attributes to small units of tension that builds up over time – similar to how music and movies build musical and visual tensions, people walk around with everyday sources tensions that can make seemingly small validations feel important to a person. I think this is likely why people attribute so much personal significance to their unpopular view points or idiosyncrasies.
  7. The sea is probably the ultimate metaphor for pretty much everything.
  8. Art is uniquely adept at showing what I call “eternal problems”, problems that we can ask ourselves but often cannot commit an answer to. For example: individualism vs. collectivism. The ones that are fitting for art are often sensitive or painful problems.
  9. Do what dogcopter says.
  10. When people of different status levels interact, a certain sense of imbalance ensues if both parties are strongly aware and affected by the imbalance in status. I feel that this often degrades quality of interaction. Since this mostly ensues if both parties feel affected by it, try to not be intimidated by the other person’s status to keep your interactions of quality.
  11. The best artworks seems to be very personal to the author, but somehow becomes personal to everyone too.
  12. People are incredibly varied in their tastes and mindset. This is always something useful to keep in mind.
  13. Gender carries innate symbolism, just as the sun, the Earth, and the moon does. Given the current political atmosphere, this is something good to keep in mind.
  14. Most likely, most people confronted a question of gender roles as a child or teenager.
  15. Taking the less aggressive stance in a debate is almost always beneficial because a.) you restrain yourself from radicalization. b.) the conversation remains friendly c.) you are more likely to analyze arguments well d.) you remove your ego from the conversation.
  16. Perfect works of art are rare. An important trade-off may need to be made at times between quality and attractiveness (ability to tell the viewer that the work has potential for something great). I think timeless works often have both.
  17. The biggest reason that poems about simple happiness so rare is probably because it is difficult to empathize with happiness.
  18. “Art is suffering” implies that the alternative is… somehow worse.
  19. Miyazaki suspects that artistic work is a glorified hobby, but I don’t think this is the case. Meaningful work seek to be useful to others, and like technology, art is useful in a different hierarchy of need.
  20. Dancing is a unique form of art that can be incredibly powerful in it’s expression of energy, life-affirmation, and love. Respect the power of dance as a medium.
  21. We often regard things that can be permanently lost as good or beautiful.
  22. Word-of-mouth recommendations > good reviews.
  23. Advise without sufficient motivation or explanation can be mistaken as “agenda”. Justify your thesis, whether emotional or rational.
  24. People with stronger sense of self-expression tends to keep a list of favorite things and like to remind people about them.
  25. Don’t be overly novel without justification.

Metaphysics (somewhat)

  1. On seeing overachievers on an epic scale, we tend to like to call them “robot” or “superhuman”, even though the connotations are quite different. This says a lot about the human condition. There are fixed traits that makes us emphasize with another more, such as holding back lower forms of desires, fighting exhaustion and apathy, and dealing with negative emotions. On the other hand, if the “hero” does not ostensibly experience these traits, we tend to antagonize them instead. This antagonization very likely comes from the notion that our struggles are perceived as pointless, and any struggles characterized as “pointless” deeply offends the human psyche. I suspect that there’s a bit of jealousy in the mix too. In the end, what we collective antagonize and envy tells us volumes about the human condition.
  2. People seek validation, empathy, and and freedom from judgement in conversation.
  3. Reasons people need sources of motivation: to feel closer to their goals, to feel powerful (which make problems look less threatening), to feel successful, and to feel surrounded by others who are similar to them (validation).
  4. Try to ask specific questions so that a.) it’s easier to dwell on them without getting distracted b.) reasonings are seamlessly linked and c.) resulting thoughts are more robust.
  5. Fast robust reasoning often comes from chained heuristics. Given good enough quality of constructing heuristics, one can chain more of them together with less likelihood of failure. Heuristics are not suitable for riskier tasks (if potential loss is high).
  6. Strange ideologies are almost always bad in the long run. These ideologies exist (or are unintentionally created) to round out potential doubts on a good heuristic, but unless the heuristics is very good, ideologies will render people unable to change. This is a huge flaw.
  7. Any space within which items can change with time can be thought of abstractly as a field that maps differential equations, along with potential probability associated with future directions so that the space can be seen as non-deterministic. This provides a mental model within which we can reason about things like the nature of decisions and potential.
  8. There is a difference between innocent vs. pure. One has knowledge while the other does not.
  9. The emphasis on obeying social structure in collectivist societies may remove people from rationalist mindsets and make them subscribed to ideologies rather than seeing them as just heuristics.
  10. Saying that “p implies q does not imply q implies p” is strictly correct, but potentially misleading.  In real life, Baye’s rule says multiple correlations can be used to deduce very strong possibilities of causation.
  11. Certain groups of people are strongly moved by what they consider “perfection”.
  12. Another way that we are not equal at birth is that some people may be attracted to things deemed harmful by society. However, I believe that the society’s laws are an approximation of the rule “do not harm others”, and I think in many ambiguous situations the moral principle of no harm should be considered the guiding star. There are no questions though that some are born to bear a burden this way.
  13. Most questions we ask are underspecified. Such answers simply have no catch-all solutions. For example, “political correctness or freedom of speech?” is a question that is insanely dependent on the situation, but people have a tendency of liking to find such catch-all solutions to simply their viewpoint and to solidify a kind of self-identity. The attraction of narrative make people lean toward absolutes. In reality, the question should be sliced to different contexts, which either requires a lot of work or is impossible. Such are the work of court judges.
  14. Questions that you thought you solved but continues to come back are nag you are probably underspecified.
  15. Heuristics can be described as approximate answers to questions that are surprisingly not-underspecified.
  16. Common life scenarios (e.g. working at a grocery store, or going to school) do not present a good average of different possible range of personal values, and so it is very easy for people to adopt strange world views that seem natural in the context of their environment. We have an illusion that what we see represents the world accurately, when that is not actually the case. Things that personal survival depends on (or have the illusion of depending on) has the highest influence on personal values.
  17. Responsibility implies mutual contract that was expected to be fulfilled. Being sacrificed for or sacrificing for someone does not indicate the presence of responsibility – it indicates a potentially a wish for another person to fulfill a post-the-fact contract. This is an undesirable way to approach things.
  18. Society operates on mutually-beneficial contracts.
  19. For whatever reason, people seek for sensations that remove a sense of ego. For example, religious community, meditation, flow-inducing activities, nature, nationalism, love, pursuit of aesthetic beauty… Activities that diminishes the ego are seen as pleasing, if not spiritual. This is prevalent enough to be considered as a possible definition of the spiritual.
  20. Most people’s self-actualization involves some sort of service to the greater community in the end, if only to justify what they like to do. There’s an innate sense that serving others is the highest goal.
  21. People’s affinity for spirituality and community  are some of the biggest driving forces in the world. This is what compels people to write, pursue art, devote themselves to ideologies, make sacrifices, and more. A significant amount of human activities can be seen as fulfilling a need that is either spiritual, communal, or both.
  22. Those who choose not to believe in science or philosophy are behaving as such because they are in a local maximum of life-satisfaction. If the process of switching to science and philosophy will incur a loss of satisfaction in the short term, then it will make sense from their perspective to hold on to their beliefs. It is perhaps possible that the process may incur loss of satisfaction in the long term, in which case we would be hard-pressed to criticize it, since science and philosophy themselves operates on the principle of practicality.
  23. Most proposition about the world can be seen as functions. When looking for functions, we are restricted by our memory to hold easy-to-remember functions, preferably non-compound ones. When this is the case, we can derive knowledge.
  24. Proposition connect at least two concepts from different spaces. “Are people good” considers “people” and “good”. To break down a proposition, consider other candidates for both (or all) of the spaces that the proposition connects, or more clearly define concepts involved.

Personal notes

  1. I should be constantly aware of the ways I talk to others and seek to improve it.
  2. I notice countless things, even unusual observations, without them reaching far enough into my consciousness to be seriously considered. I need to be more mindful of these occurrences.
  3. I can probably shell out about ~30 hours of work per week on any subject of choice.
  4. Subscribing to the mythos of independence can be harmful sometimes, especially considering the description of freedom in the execution section. Keep the option of having a team open.
  5. Some strands of thought can be tell-tale signs that some sort of self-deceiving reasoning is about to take place – e.g. guilt, the desire to avoid things, laziness, snarkiness, thinking of something as “beyond reason”.
  6. What I want in life seems not so different than from 4 years ago, and seems to be where I am heading. There is internal consistency.
  7. Be open to changing your opinions. Thinking requires flexible opinions.

Resource entanglement problems and the problem of elegance

Category : Games, Meta-Thinking, Productivity, Rationality · No Comments · by Sep 22nd, 2015

I have a problem for you:

Suppose we want to maximize our combined number of X and Y products over 10 days, and each day we can either:

  • Get 3 copies of X if Y<7, otherwise get 4 copies of X.
  • Get 2 copies of Y if X<5, otherwise get 3 copies of Y.

Over 10 days, how should we structure our choice to obtain the maximum number for X + Y?

If you have a strategy bent, then this problem will be a bit of fun, and a bit more complex than it seems at first. This is a type of problem that strategy and resource management games depend on often – when multiple resources have growth patterns that are co-dependent, simple rules can give rise to unexpectedly nuanced problems. Even better, the formula is pretty modular and simple to tweak, so it’s easy to introduce variations.

I call these type of problems resource entanglement problems, since their hallmark is multiple valuable resources with co-dependent growth curves. This type of problem rely on straightforward goals and rules to attract new players and keep those players with unexpected depth. The high ratio between depth and complexity of rules is a hallmark of good game design.

But I’m not here today to talk about game design.

 

These  problems are not always hypothetical. Resource management is a real field of study, and even outside of business there’s plenty of tradeoffs in everyday life. Consider a classic: time vs. money. With money, we can purchase services to save time. With time, we can put additional effort into making money. Since we value both time and money, we find ourselves in an intriguing cycle.

But there is a trap. Elegant optimization problems are fun to think about, but elegance does not correlate with necessity. Elegant problems grabs our attention but may distract us from more important problems. For example, resource management problems are often much more trivial when the ultimate value of one resource is removed. What if hypothetically, we were to demote our value of money? How much does money mean? What about time? These problems risk sounding senseless initially, but depending on the person may have surprising answers.

If you find yourself working on some intricate problem, perhaps the first thing to ask is what you can demote.

What is Luck?

Category : Design, Games, Mathematics, Meta-Thinking, Rationality · No Comments · by Sep 22nd, 2015

Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic the Gathering, defines luck in his ITU Copenhagen talk as “uncertainty in outcome”. I think by modeling human reasoning as Bayesian, we can come up with another fruitful, if not a more fruitful, definition.

Suppose I were to take out a quarter from my pocket and ask you to guess my next twenty flips. You perceive the heads/tails probability to be 50/50 with high confidence, and so your accuracy on my first three flips, which turned out to be all heads, is very heavily luck based.

Now suppose that my next fourteen flips are all heads. At this point, you will be quite certain that the game was rigged, and your heads/tails probability becomes 100/0. Indeed, your next three guesses are correct. Curiously, at this point in the game we no longer perceive luck as being involved.

In Bayesian speak, our 50/50 distribution is our prior belief, and 100/0 distribution posterior belief. Note that we consider the prior (no pun intended) to be highly random, whereas the latter not so much. Wikipedia defines random as “the lack of pattern or predictability in events”, which suits our current purpose. We will roll (pun intended) with it.

Now another example.

Suppose I leave right now to catch the next bus to work. The bus arrives just as I get to the bus stop. How lucky!

Now suppose I tell you that I have memorized the bus table and had been stealing glances from the wall clock while talking to you, cutting our conversation short when it’s time to leave. The bus arrives just as I get to the bus stop. Not very lucky, but pretty calculating.

This example is insightful in two ways. Firstly, to be perceived as lucky I don’t have to intentionally make a choice. As long as the outcome benefits me, I seem lucky. Secondly, we can make things seem less luck-based via additional information. My new prior (which is my posterior after memorizing the timetable) was good enough to reduce randomness. What appears to you as random may be fairly predictable for me. Randomness can be subjective. In fact, it often is. The stock market, weather patterns, and even the search for a good romantic partner can be predictable for one and random for another. Thus, a definition of luck necessarily takes subjectivity into account.

So I think that perhaps a better definition for luck is “when apparently unpredictable outcome offers high utility”. In Bayesian speak, when an outcome of good utility occurred despite a prior that doesn’t favor it. We should note too that utility, which is subjective too, also affects our perception of luckiness. In a bet with 90% chance to win one million and 10% to loss one million, the winner is still declared pretty lucky. Our perception of utility is biased. In the case of loss-aversion, sometimes the bias is advantageous.

Prior and utility are both extremely malleable, and a variety of cool insights arise (a.k.a. this is an insight dump where I stop being good at explaining things):

  1. Extremely complex conditions gives rise to priors of similar quality to everyone. In guessing the 567,890th digit of pi, everyone starts on the same prior.
  2. In fact, if the universe is deterministic, the reason that statistics and probability exists in the first place is because events are too difficult to predict. In that case, there would be no true prior other than “X certainly will happen”. Our predictions will necessarily always be approximations and guesses (a guess that can only be exact if it also states that “X certainly will happen). If the world is deterministic, probability is a summary of what we don’t know.
  3. Depths of gameplay may arise from a sufficiently complex condition that allows continual optimization. A first card drawn from a nicely-shuffled deck is complex because shuffling is complex, but shallow because we don’t hold any information that can visibly optimize our prior. A card drawn during the middle of the game is complex not only due to shuffling but also due to a significant number of cards already in play; however, this draw is less shallow because we can use the cards in play to optimize our prior if we wish. When we are down to the last dozen or so cards, the draws are actually deeper because we now have very concrete information to optimize from.
  4. When you meet people who to you seems perpetually lucky or unlucky, you should strongly suspect your priors.
  5. Knowledge on probability, statistics is very valuable.
  6. Knowledge about how to improve your priors is extremely valuable. It’s a prior on how to change your prior when you see rules. See factors of correctness. A hidden value in Bayesian models is actually a value or a prior on confidence (the resilience your priors are to change). The phenomenon illustrated in factors of correctness might point to variability of the of underlying prior on confidence. It seems like more research should be done in that area.
  7. Disguising depth through luck allows new players an excuse to feel better. It’s a desirable feature of design.
  8. The best estimation for probability is set in stone, so our versatility (once we have a good prior) comes from selecting our situation such that the most likely outcome yields optimal utility. Something like betting on heads on a rigged coin or timing our leave for the bus.
  9. Complexity is a gradient scale but has very different design properties on different logarithmic scales.
  10. To artificially add luck to anything, create a situation where everyone has the same starting prior. (i.e. dice roll, coin flip, atmospheric pressure).
  11. For fun (not for profit), to make yourself more “lucky”, put yourself in situations where unsuspecting high utility situations may occur, without much probability of low utility situations. This might explain why people who are more curious finds more pleasant surprises.

On finding and being ok with mistakes

Category : Meta-Thinking, Rationality, Reflections · No Comments · by Sep 20th, 2015

Elon Musk caught my attention when he said something to the effect of “successful company fix mistakes fast, while unsuccessful ones denies that the mistake exists in the first place”. There’s an assumption that “you will make mistakes, no matter how hard you work” that is rather refreshing.

Over break I made a pretty big mistake of being enamored with an unfeasible research plan. I had an idea that my instinct told me was going to work, and assumed that it is indeed going to work for at least a month. To make matters worse, over the month many chances to question the idea has came up, but I avoided taking the difficult route each of the time because 1.) I didn’t want to face the possibility of losing the idea and 2) I assumed that things are probably going ok and everything will magically solve itself.

The reason I caught up to the mistake early was because I forced myself to work on the plan for 2 hours a day. If I didn’t do that, it’s conceivable that I would have caught the mistake close to the due date of my proposal.

When I think back to my mistake, I saw a few surprising lessons. Firstly, up until the point I started procrastinating thinking about the idea,  I had done absolutely nothing wrong. It’s impossible to prevent a problematic idea from stealing your attention, so the only way to fix the problem would be thinking more or trying. On the other hand, since at the time we did not know a problem exists, the advice “fix mistakes fast” isn’t applicable here. Rather, we should try to confirm untested assumptions before depending on them. This often boils down to “testing assumptions fast”, since over time we rely on our assumptions more. Often, during this testing, we discover better answers.

My procrastination taught me that I should be extremely suspicious of untested assumptions with high stakes, and be especially alert to assumptions that my minds attempts to persuade me not to suspect.

Isn’t that natural, after all? We all want to be right, but given the complexity of the world, we are bound to make many wrong predictions.

Primary Source is Actually Pretty Great

Category : Education, Rationality · No Comments · by Sep 8th, 2015

I’ve been wondering about why I had such a great time reading Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander (of Star Slate Codex), and in the process I stumbled upon some important academic truths.

In many questions of more-than-trivial complexity, the closest we are going to get to actual answers is through scientific inquiry [1]. For this reason, in informed discussions, we have a license to reference these academic findings as if they were truths. In this way, while academic work don’t directly answer some of the most complex and important questions in life, they take us much closer.

But all those discussions are based on the assumption that academic work is conducted in good faith – i.e. the numbers are correct and faithfully represented, the conclusions are reasonable and substantiated, etc. A good analogy for the value of academic work is the U.S. dollar, as both are based on good faith. As the USD would be worthless without the backing of the government, research would be useless without the assumption of academic honesty (and this honesty is somewhat reasonably connected to faith in the research institution).

The insistence of relying on primary source exist for the same reason. With each quotation, some information is inevitably lost. Worse, as most work attempt to make a point, the results may be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued. The outcome of using information distant from primary source is largely the same as using bad research: your points will be inaccurate. While the chain of references used in academic may still cause some deviations from initial references, the decay of quality is much slower that way.

One of the reasons I like Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander is that they present surprisingly useful conclusions but are able to back their conclusions with research. This is worlds apart from the status quo psychology and self-help books in terms of reliability.

I remember being drilled on the importance of primary source in seventh grade, then at least two or three times more in the course of my K-12. The claims never appeared to be backed up, and I soon began to see the practice as some of formality. But now I my views have come around.

I still wonder though, did the teachers or the educators know? Four years of college education certainly taught me little on the subject. Concerning how the importance of these concepts hinge on persuasiveness, the failure of the concepts to latch on to students is ironic.

[1] This article deals with research, but first-hand interviews follow’s the same logic.

Pure Land in Bullet Hell

Category : Art, Games · No Comments · by Sep 3rd, 2015

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A collection of mini-essays as a homage to Touhou scorerunners. Generalizable to shmups, and to a degree some other mediums. For the uninitiated, a taste of scorerunning can be found here.

I. Man vs. self

Shmups embody the essence of the man versus the self. In few other genres are one-coin clears so emphasized, and mistakes so obvious to the gamer. The score mechanic, a decoration in most genres, thrives in shmups. The score in no uncertain terms communicate to you the worth of your play.

Other games are like miniature gardens, shmups are like miniature mountains. Their towering difficulty challenges all that passes. Most don’t heed it and continue their way. Some do. They stop in their tracks, beholds the peak of the mountain, dream up a journey to the top, and dedicate a part of their life to it.

In 2008 Kuro, a score-runner in Perfect Cherry Blossom, posted a screenshot showing over 2500 hours of gameplay spread over more than 36000 sessions.

II. What do you want?

I had once considered scorerunning in Touhou. Not far into the attempt, I realized that in order to do what I truly wanted to do, I could not afford to seek high scores. It’s the first time I realized that I can’t want and get every lofty goal in life.

In April 2010, AM, a renowned virtuoso in the Touhou scorerunning scene, quit scorerunning to reclaim other aspects of his life.

III. Ability and wisdom

The impressive players of the game are not always wise. In 2011, the Chinese Touhou community outed score-runner MSH when it became apparent that he had cheated to obtain world records. The ousting was a public one, as MSH had cultivated many followers at the time.

The truth is, MSH is a better player than you and I. He has the talent. But talent does not correlate with conduct.

Talent, creativity, persistence, perfectionism. Which ones make you nice, and which ones don’t? In the end, their score reveals little.

IV. Ruthlessness

My old replays have a certain degree of ruthlessness to it.

When I had a goal in mind, I would ignore other conventions of “good plays”, instead abusing safespots, neglecting score, and otherwise bombing enemy patterns on sight to reduce the difficulty of the run.

Legendary player GIL was known to exaggerate his handicap for already-difficult challenges in order to produce awe-inspiring replays. In some ways I was the opposite of that.

I noticed that recently I’ve been playing shmups less ruthlessly. But I actually liked my old style.

V. Wholesome

Great score improvements in Touhou are made in billions. For the first years of a game, the high scores tend to barely pass certain thresholds: 42 billion,  52 billion, 21 billion, 10.1 billion.

This is because the pioneers has no one else to look up to, so they ask: is 30 billion achievable? What about 50 billion? They plot up a path and inevitably achieve their first milestones. New challengers seek to beat the best score, devising their own improvements on top of those milestones. They don’t ask “is 50 billion achievable?” but “how do I beat the current world-record?” Thus, world-records have a tendency to grows slower after passing certain milestones.

Eventually, when the state of art is near perfection, someone comes along and asks “what’s the theoretical maximum? This is the case when coa reached a score of 1.00002 billion in Mountain of Faith extra mode, 0.1% away from the theoretical maximum of 1.0001 billion.

VI. Creativity

A good replay is largely about execution, but sometimes creativity trumps. In this way, scorerunning is a bit like an art form.

In the demo days of Subterranean Animism, a player named UnKnown started submitting replays with innovative strategies, and consequently besting the then-highest scores by huge margins. But he did this to his own replays too, submitting new replays under alias like “U.N.None”, “#unexist”, and ” ” (blank) that introduce innovations on top of his own.

From one of his alias, “tongrentang”, we could trace him to the Chinese scorerunning community. Perhaps some top Chinese players know of his/her identity. But the alias seems to suggest that in the end, who it is doesn’t matter.

VII. Finding pure land

To score-run in Touhou is to stand between life and death. Most Touhou games have a “graze” mechanic, which rewards players for hovering near bullets (so-called graze zone). Most high-scores have tens of thousands of grazes, meaning tens of thousands of intentional almost-deaths.

The graze zone is a harsh and hostile habitat. Imperfections must be purged. The replays discretely showcase the scorerunner’s ability to survive under hostility.

But the players thrive and rejoice under such hostilities. They chose it over the leisure that most media affords, and devote thousands of hours to exploring the world and reaching for perfection. It’s a strangely haunting vision of what the world can be – a place of discipline, self-improvement, tackling limits, striving for the seemingly-possible – a pure land.

VIII. Monuments never-ending

The hundreds of replays on the Touhou high-score board and thousands made in an attempt to reach it are made permanent by the advent of the digital age. Even as a mild shmup player, I can trace the thoughts of the players as they weave through the bullets and improvise under unexpected conditions. These players are no doubt fully concentrated, and the replays capture their thoughts across brief moments in time.

But to earn that privilege to be seen, studied, acknowledged, admired, you must surpass all others before you and ascend to the top. Even then, there is no absolute security. No perfect replays has even been produced, no one has ever done everything that can be done. As long as Touhou is played. The monument of these scoreruns will inevitably be replaced by the scoreruns of the next generation of challengers.

In October 2010, Jack attained 1.002 billion in Mountain of Faith extra, breaking coa’s theoretical limit of 1.001 billion. In the comments section, he conjectures that 1.003 billion is theoretically possible.

Relativity of Experience

Category : Commentary, Meta-Thinking, Reflections · No Comments · by Aug 14th, 2015

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I think the reason I enjoy Totoro so much despite the tiny scope of the conflict in the plot is in it’s careful handling of dramatic elements.

Despite the lack of epic scenarios, Totoro still strikes me as the most moving of the Miyazaki films. The problems encountered by the children seem trivial to an adult (except the final conflict of the disappearance of Mei), and so too seem the joys of resolution. Certainly, they would not have a great effect on me today. But to Satsuki and Mei, with their rich imaginations and lack of experience, the conflicts and the joys challenged their existing boundaries and suggest unfathomable possibilities joyful or dark. Living through Satsuki and Mei is to relieve a childlike fascination with the world.

The importance of relativity of experience in Totoro cannot be overstated. The representation of childlike fascination would easily be broken should the everyday life of Satsuki and Mei provide any fantastical or emotionally intense elements. The impact of the fantastic in Totoro exists solely in relativity to the mundane everyday.

Even after seeing Totoro no less than eight times, I am still awestruck by the subtle but masterful directing balancing the mundane and the fantastic.

But going back to the relativity of experience, I think this sort of relativity applies to a huge variety of settings in life. Most qualities in our lives have been stable enough to have an established baseline – qualities like the level of hardship, the requirement for patience, eventfulness, and even the sodium level of our diet to name a few. Just like our desensitization to our baseline level of sodium, other qualities become desensitized over time as well, leaving us to see only fluctuations as notable experiences.

This theory has significant implications. For example, it may seem counter-intuitive to enforce deadlines and pressure on oneself, but a lifestyle desensitized to the additional stress level may reap the benefit of added productivity. Discipline seems uncomfortable to outsiders, but perhaps this is a reason why people can stay in demanding routines. Perhaps it is possible to minimize distractions by desensitizing oneself to a low baseline of distraction quantity, and perhaps it is possible to minimize indulgence by establishing small things as indulgences.

Naturally, baselines have a limit. We cannot lower our baseline desire for water beyond our body’s minimum requirements. From my experiences however, most measures in life can be adapted for, and the range is surprisingly wide if the baseline is moved slowly.

If this is the case, most people will have lots to optimize for, and can identify simple criteria to judge their own optimization. Off the top of my head:

  • Did I change my baseline too fast or too slow?
  • Did I give enough time for desensitization each step?
  • Did I appear to have found a limit for this baseline?
  • Did I do much to enhance stability and thus accelerate desensitization?

 

Why is Writing for Games so Difficult?

Category : Design, Games, Writing · No Comments · by Aug 5th, 2015

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I’ve been watching walkthroughs for The Last Express. Funny that a concept I thought was innovative a year ago has in fact been done close to two decades ago.

As a game designer, I often find myself awkwardly maneuvering game elements in order to fit the story. Why is writing for stories so hard? I think the problem is interactivity.

Consider the traditional written or oral tale. In the story, not every minute gets assigned equal weight. Seconds, days, or years that are not essential gets skimmed over. This is the convention, without which both writing and reading would be unbearable. Movies embrace this convention through cuts.

In order fit a good story to a game, we naturally want to extend the above analogy to games, but interactivity works against this in three important ways:

1. Major gameplay sections usually do not support the “cut to the interesting part” structure.

2. Conventionally, gameplay sections must be engaging, which does not necessarily correlate with interest points within the story.

3. Gameplay affords the opportunity to deviate from a single storyline, often in so many ways that covering all scenarios is prohibitive in terms of cost.

In any given imaginary timeline, in order to seamlessly integrate story and gameplay, we must slice the timeline in a way that satisfies both the conventions for good story “cuts” and the conventions for good gameplay “cuts”. #2 and #3 are both difficult to account for while maintaining a good tempo for story, and #1 seems outright contradictory to the convention of a good story “cut”, unless the story or the game mechanics are somewhat special.  Writing and gameplay are not a true dichotomy, but it’s clear that extremely specific requirements must be met to optimize both simultaneously.

If the player is playing as a character in the game, then the “seamless integration” would also have to carefully avoid ludonarrative dissonance, a complex topic (and navigation) in its own right.

I think designers who write existing stories into their games are in a world of hurt, yet most games now still ship with an existing storyline. I think this is because for a long time, existing storyline is the only way of storytelling we know of.

So what are some potential solutions? The Last Express incorporates a highly interesting setting to sustain engagement throughout a stable timeline, while utilizing vast amounts of writing and technology to work around #3. Forgoing elaborate stories altogether may be a good choice (consider Threes and Angry Birds). Simple but well-crafted stories may be effective (Shadow of the Colossus) too. A sense of determinism can be built into the game to combat #3, which may also suitably evoke a sense of the tragic.

I think that increasingly, building the narrative out of player experiences rather than in-game story has become a popular choice. Games like Pokemon, League of Legends, and Journey have minimum built-in stories and rely on gameplay scenarios unique to each playthrough to generate evocative stories. One can think of this as analogous to “emergent gameplay”, expect instead we are designing for potent story scenarios – “emergent storytelling”.