Monthly Archives: July 2010

How do you unplay a Game?

I have been thinking a lot about this tech addiction topic over the last week. Some problems just keep beating you about the head and shoulders until you try to do something about them.

And according to the data I’m looking at. It’s a big problem.

Huge.

Billions of dollars have been spent by technology and internet companies to find out how to get you to play games. Every little detail is controlled and optimized, from the graphics to the music to the way the game is presented.

Fact is, however, that it really doesn’t take much to get people to play games. Most of us seem somewhat natural at doing trivial and repetitive things. Somewhere right now there is still somebody wasting hours playing Tetris from the 1990s. A few little colored shapes dropping from the top of the screen. Millions of hours were spent on it.

From what I can tell, people have a natural desire to be in a state of flow. Professor Mihály Csikszentmihályi describes the flow state like this:

  • clear and distinct objectives
  • temporary loss of self-consciousness
  • distorted sense of time
  • actions merging with awareness
  • immediate feedback
  • high concentration on the task
  • high level of control over this task
  • balance (precise matching) between the available skills and the task challenges
  • experiences bring full satisfaction and are worth doing for their own sake

The problem is, the last item — experiences bring full satisfaction — is a very relative thing. What you view as being worthwhile in itself this very minute could be completely different than how you would value it a year from now.

From my email stream yesterday

I figure that I work hard and effectively 8 or 10 hours a day, and as my world stands right now, that gives me the privilege to do what I please the rest of the time. So when I said 4-5 hours, I didn’t mean that I want to get rid of those 4-5 hours, and spend them doing something else.

I have to admit that whether something is “productive” has almost zero influence on whether I am inclined to do it….

I don’t know whether I’m striking the right balance between spending “unproductive” time online and spending time doing other things — maybe I would be happier spending 2 hours a day average instead of 4; it feels like there’s a little element of addiction influencing me. But I know that I would not be happier spending 0, or 1.

There are 3 great points here.

  1. Technology is like food. It’s not like we can turn it off. Like it or not, we’re stuck in a world where to communicate with others and do our jobs we’re going to be using technology. The same world-wide web that helps cancer researchers has tens of millions of folks playing Farmville. It’s just the merest tiny change in an URL
  2. People feel like they’re owed something. Hey, I put in my time at work and I deserve a little happiness. If watching porn or lolcats makes me a little happier for a few hours, then it’s a good thing.
  3. But shit, did I really need to spend 4 hours on that? — There’s this underlying feeling that as entertained and happy as we are using technology, as much as it helps, we’re missing out on something.

Old farts like me (45) are supposed to say things like “I remember back when we had to hitch the horses up to go into town. Younguns today are whiny little spoiled things”

So I’ll say something like that.

I remember when I grew up what is was like to be bored. Summer would be in full swing, we’d get up and have breakfast – -then what? It was very common to complain to mom and dad about not having anything to do. There were 3 channels on TV and it was all soap operas during the day. We had no video games or taped movies.

Boredom was a real, physical, immediate, painful experience. But mom and dad would always say something like “you need to go and make yourself something fun to do, son”

The pain led to complaining, which led to self-direction and creative play. We’d build monsters from old blankets, make a play, create a new game. It was just you. If you wanted something fun, it took physical and mental work — sometimes a lot of it. Boredom was nature’s way of telling you that you had to create, invent. Act.

I’m sure my great, great grandfather probably had the exact same experience with hunger. Nothing to eat? Painful experience. Motivates you to go out and hunt and kill something. Pain drives adaptation. Now we all sit around eating junk food all the time, fat as pigs. My grandfather would be amazed.

Like bad food, bad technology just makes you want to do more of it. So how do you do just a little bit of something instead of so much? What’s the low-carb, good sugar version of technology?

How do you unplay a game?

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The Project

In the Beginning was the Project

And then came the Assumptions

And the Assumptions were without form and void

And the customer conversation was completely without substance

and the darkness was upon the face of the workers

and they spoke among themselves, saying

“It is a crock of shit and it stinketh.”

And the workers went unto their Supervisors and sayeth,

“It is a pail of dung and none may abide the odour thereof”,

And the Supervisors went unto their Managers and sayeth unto them,

“It is a container of excrement and it is very strong,

Such that none may abide by it.”

And the Managers went unto their Directors and sayeth,

“It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength.”

And the Directors spoke amongst themselves, saying one to another,

“It contains that which aids plant growth, and it is very strong.”

And the Directors went unto the Vice Presidents and sayeth unto them,

“It promotes growth and is very powerful.”

And the Vice Presents went unto the President and sayeth unto him,

“This new project will actively promote the growth and efficiency

of this Organization, and in these areas in particular.”

And the President looked upon The Project,

And saw that it was good, and The Project continued many generations, and many were overpowered at the size, ineptness and illogic of it

And this is why you are here

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Talking Digital Drugs Part 1

I sat down with a bunch of my friends yesterday and had a detailed conversation about digital drugs. I was wondering — am I the only person who views this as a problem? Instead of chatting, I decided to use an online survey tool so that I could slice and dice the data. And here’s what I found:

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Inventions, Induction, Implications, Insinuations

1903 — Man first flies in heavier-than-air plane

Approximately 22 years later, early 1920s — propeller aircraft become practical. 1923 First nonstop transcontinental flight. 1927 First Solo nonstop Transatlantic flight

Approximately 20 years later, mid 1940s — The propeller gets replaced. 1944, German Messerschmitt Me 262 is first production jet fighter. 1947, Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in an X-1

Approximately 22 years later, mid 1960s. SCRAMJET practical application. The SR-71 Blackbird first flies 1966

Approximately 22 years later, invisible airplanes. the clunky F-117 stealth fighter in 1981 preceded the terribly dangerous B-2 in 1989

Approximately 22 years later, 2010. ?????What?

The last two advances were made under extreme secrecy. It took many years for the rest of us to catch up.

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Looking for the Archons

Sci-Fi can be deeply meaningful, or just all so much bullshit. It all depends on how you consume it.

During lunch for the last week I’ve been having a Trek-for-lunch workout session. Just old Star Trek shows (remastered) and the elliptical machine. Yesterday’s show was “Return of the Archons” If you’re not a trek fan, here’s a synopsis of the show from wiki

Teaser

Lieutenants Sulu and O’Neil are dispatched to the surface of the planet Beta III to learn what became of the Archon, which disappeared there one hundred years earlier. Recognized as outsiders, they draw the attention of the lawgivers. Pursued, the officers call for beam-out, but only Sulu is retrieved, and he is in a strange mental state.

Act One

Captain Kirk beams down with a larger landing party to investigate. Spock, Dr. McCoy, sociologist Lindstrom, and two guards, Leslie and Galloway, form the balance of the landing party. Immediately, Spock notices a strangeness in the people they encounter; a kind of contented mindlessness. Then the Red hour strikes – the beginning of the Festival, a period of debauchery and lawlessness. Fleeing, the landing party bursts in on Reger, Hacom, and Tamar. They had been told by Bilar and Tula, two passersby, that Reger could rent them rooms for after Festival. Their questions seem to terrify Reger. They are given rooms and retreat from the mayhem outside, trying their best to get a few hours’ sleep.

Festival ends the next morning. Reger, learning the landing party did not attend Festival, concludes they are not of the Body, and asks an astonishing question: “Are you Archons?” The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of lawgivers, the robed servants of the mysterious Landru. The lawgivers command the landing party to accompany them, to be absorbed.

Act Two

Kirk, acting on a hunch, defies them – and causes confusion. He’d correctly concluded this society is built around obedience, and might not be ready for disobedience. Taking advantage of their confusion, Reger guides the crew to a place he knows, where they will be safe. But on the way, Landru employs a form of mass telepathy to command an attack. Among the attackers is… Lieutenant O’Neil. Reger warns against bringing him along, but Kirk cannot abandon a crew member.

Spock discovers a source of immense power, radiating from a point near the landing party’s location. Reger tells Kirk about the arrival of the first Archons: many were killed, many more were absorbed. And then he drops the bombshell, mentioning casually that Landru pulled the Archons from the sky… Kirk contacts the Enterprise, and learns that heat beams are focused on the ship. Her shields are able to deflect them, but nearly all ship’s power is diverted to this purpose. Communications are poor, escape is impossible, and the orbit is decaying. If Kirk can’t put a stop to the beams, the ship will be destroyed. Worse, contacting the ship enables Landru to discover and stun the landing party.

Act Three

They awaken in a cave-like cell, but McCoy, Galloway and O’Neil are missing. Then McCoy returns – and he has been absorbed. Evidently, this is the fate that awaits the entire landing party. Lawgivers appear, demanding Kirk accompany them, and this time, Kirk’s refusal results in an immediate death threat. The orderly society has corrected a flaw.

Kirk is taken to a futuristic room: the absorption chamber. There, a priest named Marplon will oversee Kirk’s forcible induction into the Body. Lawgivers summon Spock, who is taken to the same place, and there encounters Kirk, now mindlessly happy.

Act Four

Spock learns that Marplon is part of the same underground to which Reger belongs. Marplon intervened to prevent both Kirk and Spock from being absorbed, and returned their weapons. Spock, acting as instructed, makes his way back to the cell.

Discussing Landru and his society, Kirk and Spock reach the same conclusion: the society has no spirit, no spark; Landru’s orders are being issued by a computer. Kirk decides the plug must be pulled. Spock is concerned this would violate the Prime Directive, but Kirk opines that the directive applies to living, growing cultures. When Reger and Marplon join them, Kirk demands more information: the location of Landru. Reger reveals that Beta III was at war, and was in danger of destroying itself. Landru, one of the leaders, took the people back to a simpler time. And, Marplon claims, Landru is still alive.

Marplon takes Kirk and Spock to a chamber, the Hall of Audiences, where Landru appears to his acolytes – or, at least, a projection of him does. There, Landru regretfully informs them that their interference is causing great harm, and that they, and all who knew of them, must be killed, to cleanse the memory of the Body. Blasting through the wall, Kirk reveals the truth: an ancient machine, built and programmed by the real Landru 6,000 years earlier. This machine, now calling itself Landru, was entrusted with the care of the Body, the society of Beta III. To that end, it has enslaved all members of that society, and those who visit, in a thralldom of happiness that is stagnant and without creativity.

Kirk and Spock discuss this with Landru, asking it difficult questions it has evidently never had to answer, questions about whether its approach to creating the good is really creating evil. Ultimately, they convince it that it is the evil, and that it must destroy the evil – and it does, exploding in a burst of pyrotechnics.

Kirk leaves a team of specialists, including Lindstrom, to help restore the planet’s culture “to a Human form”.

It’s not a great episode, and I kept noticing that one of the red-shirt guys kept asking stupid questions. The plot would inch along towards us realizing that it’s a computer controlling things, and the character would say something like “Don’t these people have a soul!”

It seemed kind of stupid, but then I realized that the writers were using all the dumb comments as a way of continuing to explain the plot. Perhaps folks in the 1960s couldn’t understand computer mind control. I don’t know. it seemed heavy-handed to me. It had lots of problems. If I was going to start picking apart problems, I wasn’t going to enjoy the story much. How about making up a game?

So with nothing better to do than exercise and think, I started asking myself the old editors and writer’s question: “what could you take away from this show and it would still work?”

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The Other End of the Telescope

Colorized picture of president Abraham Lincoln

I’m a contrarian by heart — if everybody goes one way, I start looking the other way. Must be something interesting going on over there. If everybody is selling stock, I’m looking to buy, if everybody is telling me how bad person X is, I’m automatically interested in their good qualities. I’m like the guy looking at the first telescope, and instead of using it traditionally, I swing it around the other way and exclaim “Hey! This thing makes stuff look _really_ far away!”

Why? First, I have always been a bit of an anti-social person, but more to the point, from many years of observation, I have concluded that most of the time people oversimplify and overreact. If there’s some bad economic news, the market drops off — but it almost always drops off farther than it should. If some executive or politician is caught doing something wrong, people shun him. But they almost always shun him more than is reasonable. If the economy takes a bad turn, it’s the end of capitalism.

Especially when it comes to war and history, people think in the most crude and simplistic terms. It’s either good or evil. People think of wars as always moving civilizations forward. Winners are the good guys. Losers are the bad ones.

I’m not about to defend Nazism, but even the Nazis weren’t Nazis: there were some real and valid reasons for German outrage after the way WWI was settled. The allies didn’t want total victory, and some of the major issues weren’t settled, so the war continued many years later. In fact, many historians view both the first and second World Wars and being the same war. I digress. What I wanted to talk about was good and evil, history, and super heroes and ultimate villains.

Which brings me to Abraham Lincoln.

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The Biggest Obstacle

I’ve spent the last ten years working on creating my own startup. I’ve read dozens of books, hung out with other people who wanted a startup online, joined clubs and associations, met with “experts” , etc. More to the point, I’ve actually built 5 startup ideas and tried them out.

I’m finally reaching the point where I’m starting to get traction — I’m not Ramen-profitable, but some things are starting to “click” and I’m making enough money each month to cover server and domain expenses plus beer money. That’s not Bill Gates-rich, but it sure beats a stick in the eye.

Now that I’m beginning to get traction, I’m also beginning to feel like I may never make it.

Why? Because there’s a huge obstacle that I am not sure I can overcome on my own.

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If you could go back in Time, What Would you tell Yourself in your 20s?

  • Shiny things are nowhere as much fun after you get them as before, even if they have some value. So yes, that Kindle or iPad or whatever will have a real use, and you will be marginally happier with it than without, but not as much as you think
  • You can talk yourself into (or out of) anything. The only difference between smart people and other people is that smart people do this with bigger words and more complex arguments. Be confident, but also assume that you are broken in ways you can never spot. Find some ways to get a checksum on life decisions every now and then.
  • You don’t need very much at all. Maybe a laptop computer and a couple changes of clothes. Pictures and videos of your life. That’s about it.
  • Nothing will ever replace experiences. No matter how big the car, nice the house, or professional-looking the suit, it’s never going to be as much fun or mean as much later as the experiences you have in life. And it’s not just having the experience, it’s looking forward to them, and planning them, and making pictures, movies, and blogs out of them. The best part, oddly, may be the planning. So planning a 200-dollar trip to the beach in the Fall with people you love may give you many hours of happiness this summer — along with the fun of the trip itself.
  • Learn to keep picking topics and immersing yourself in them. Most everybody will say to drop out and become part of the system — 9-5 job and TV/games/internet in the evening. If you want a life you could sleep through, that’s fine. But if you want a life you can tell stories about, keep reinventing yourself. And that means constantly learning.
  • Lots of shit in life that once looked dumb or stupid opens up into this huge panorama of beauty once you learn the rules. In so many things you are like the guy who never saw a baseball game going to the world series. You kind of get it, but it all seems silly. You don’t know the rules. Decide to learn how to appreciate music, for instance. Get a few college lectures on tape, get some good music to listen to, hang out with folks who are music connoisseurs. The more you know about various art forms, the richer your life is.
  • Forget philosophy and meaning-of-life shit. You’re too young. For now, you are what you do. Go do something worthwhile. By this I do not mean spending a lot of time limiting yourself by placing labels on ourselves and limiting your perceptions by labeling others. I mean you make the decisions to do what you want to do, and those decisions — what you do, your decisions — is the essence of your existence.

    The things you may or may not have not done in the past have nothing at all to do with it. If you define yourself by your past actions then you are doing yourself a great harm.

    Every minute you make new choices, do new things, and those choices and actions are your life. The things you do, the decisions and actions you take, even if nothing more than decisions to be happy under miserable circumstances, constitute your life. You own them, and by continuing to take ownership and dancing above the chasm, you live fully.

    We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

  • Stick to a daily exercise routine at all costs
  • If you are changing and getting better, that means you are changing friends too. This was very difficult for me, but you can’t hang out with the same folks and expect to become a better person. There are exceptions, of course, but to a large degree your life is controlled by whom you choose to be friends and hang out with. Be aware that you don’t want to be the same person at 30 as you were at 20. I’m not saying be an asshole — keep being friendly by all means — but be very careful who you hold yourself up against as “normal”
  • Dating is a numbers game, like a lot of other things. Learn the skills of dating and don’t sweat picking up chicks (or guys)
  • Concentrate on your weaknesses. Make them stronger. When you get to your 30s you can work from your strengths, but there has to be some time in your life to work on shit you suck at, and for me it was when I had the most motivation, my 20s.
  • Speaking of which, you have to learn management. No matter what you do, there will be a manager. Even if you don’t want to be one, you have to understand what the job is like to help out your manager. Being a good leader means being a good servant. This concept sounded easy (or facile) to me in my 20s, but proved hard to apply in practice.
  • You are never ready for kids. Have them early while you have energy. Read all the books about kids if you must, but realize that creating a replacement is about the most biologically easy thing you could do. After all, evolution has been working on making you a great gene transferral and primate-raising machine, so don’t get paranoid and neurotic about all the latest parenting fashion. Use some sense.
  • Everybody wants to be a rock star and win the lottery. Nobody ever does, and the ones that do end up destroying their life. Realize slow success is a million times better than overnight success.
  • Much of the stuff in life that normal people do is geared around killing time by distracting you with shiny things of no value. You may never be able to fight this completely, but you should at least deeply understand it and how it affects your goals
  • Create. With a passion. There are two major kinds of people in this world, consumers and creators. The herd will push you to consume, life will push you to consume, consumption is the easy and default path, but true joy and a full life come from creating. It does not matter one bit how many people like what you create, just create. Write. Blog. Make videos. Make a movie. Write a program. The longer the format and the more creativity involved, the more you are going to turn on and exercise key parts of your brain. Nobody wants to be 80 and only have stories of being at the office, but fuck, if you were at the office creating something at least you tried to make a difference. I’d rather be that guy than the one who watched Sumo wrestling everyday (or played 20,000 hours of WoW during his 20s) The only thing you’re going to have at the end of your life are the decisions you made, the things you created, and memories. Learn to maximize these things.
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A Little Perspective

I was downloading data from my PulseOx this morning and thinking about some problems i had yesterday with type coercion in F# when it occurred to me how good I am at whining and complaining. It’s something of an art form. We live in a wondrous world, yet we complain all the time. Everything is awesome and everything sucks. Dude! Where is my jet-pack?

Then I remembered those cool pictures I found last week on the internet and changed my mind.

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