The cryptic, mysterious power of open-ended universes

Ether One is a new video game about a researcher who dives into the brain of a patient suffering from dementia to try to retrieve some memories. The New Yorker has a profile:

If a game is going to be a game, in the sense of a progressive series of challenges leading to a definite end state, it can’t represent dementia or Alzheimer’s with anything other than a self-conscious artifice. We’re used to suspending some disbelief to enjoy shooting games, but it feels like bad faith to say that a disease should be the basis of a similar kind of entertainment. Our desire to entertain ourselves within systems that make triviality and tragedy indistinguishable says more about us than the depicted subjects. If violent war games are driven by delusional power fantasies, then empathy games are driven by a parallel delusion about how caring we are in reality.

“Our aim was to create an empathetic story but it wasn’t necessarily to raise awareness about dementia,” Bottomley said. “Most people know what dementia is—they just find it hard to talk about, especially if someone close to them suffers from it. The main thing we wanted to achieve was to open the conversation about dementia and put you in the shoes of someone suffering with it.” At their core, games are abstract informants against our communal shortcomings, systems that model our frailest qualities in a subconscious effort to dispel them, to imagine a world where they might surpassed.

I purchased the first version of Myst when it released in 1993, and the experience of playing it for the first time is still so vivid I can remember how I felt. Myst was unique in its complete absence of any instructions, rules, or backstory other than some basic notes on how to use your keyboard and mouse to navigate. It capitalized on one of the unique qualities of video games as a medium, the ability to drop you into a world without any information and to force you to decipher the rules of that universe as part of the gameplay.

Even further back than Myst, I remember playing the first Leisure Suit Larry, staying up until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure which commands to type to solve one puzzle and progress to the next level, or screen (an apt metaphor for a teenager's journey of acquiring sexual knowledge, part of the game's humor). After a few hours stuck on one level one night, I finally realized I had to type a command like "read the sign" to find out I was standing at a taxi stand, and that led me to type "call a taxi" which was the key to moving on. Since the interaction text field was open ended, I had no idea what commands would work at any particular screen or location.

Every time I play with one of my nieces or nephews, they inundate me with questions. Children query at a noticeably higher rate than adults, and playing open-ended video games like Myst returns my adult self to that child-like mode of unending exploration. While children can be exhausting, I love watching them try and make sense of the world, like voracious information gatherers trying to understand the rules of the universe they've been dropped into, and I always feel guilt when resorting to the white lies that adults feel justified in using from time to time when speaking to young children (e.g. Santa Claus).

Myst shifted that type of puzzle to a non-verbal level, elevating the sense of mystery to an almost dream-like state where cryptic visual symbols abound. Memento, still my favorite of the Christopher Nolan movies, could very well describe the sensation of playing these types of video games.

Detective stories and movies are a related storytelling form, and the private investigator descending on a town to solve a mystery or crime is one of my favorite character archetypes. I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes over a half dozen times at this point, and I'm a sucker for those British miniseries like Broadchurch that involve some investigator trying to solve a murder in a small town. The best of such mysteries work on two levels: at the literal level, the crime itself must be unpacked, but at a higher level, the crime reflects some rot at the heart of the community or society or country at large, the way Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy protests a variety of ills at the heart of Swedish society and culture.

Recently I learned that Myst and other games are classified as escape games and that some people had brought such games to the real world in the form of one hour experiences called Escape the Room. Many of my friends in San Francisco have already tried the local version, Escape the Mysterious Room, and for my brother Alan's birthday this year I tried Escape the Room NYC. If you're a fan of escape games, I highly recommend organizing a team for a real world Escape the Room event. It only takes an hour, and since the rules are, by definition, limited, the time commitment is minimal.

All of life can feel like one grim escape game, sometimes it's fun to relax with one with no consequences. It's not for nothing that the word “escape” has multiple definitions:

:to get away from a place (such as a prison) where you are being held or kept

:to get away from something that is difficult or unpleasant

The stunning grand jury decision in Ferguson

A St. Louis County grand jury on Monday decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of teenager Michael Brown. The decision wasn’t a surprise — leaks from the grand jury had led most observers to conclude an indictment was unlikely — but it was unusual. Grand juries nearly always decide to indict.

Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.

Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

That's via FiveThirtyEight. Those are federal numbers, and this case was heard in state, so it's not a perfect comp, but speaking to my sister and other lawyers, failure to get an indictment is still extremely rare.

Despite the grand jury leaks, somehow I held out hope, perhaps naively, that they'd still decide to indict.

The prosecutor had long said that he'd release evidence if the grand jury failed to reach an indictment, but the judge has not agreed to it yet

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCullough has repeatedly stated that he would obtain a court order to unseal grand jury evidence, an unusual step that was seen as an attempt to defuse potential anger over the decision. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on Nov. 23, St. Louis County Court Administrator Paul Fox said Judge Carolyn Whittington had agreed to grant the request.

But Fox described the paraphrased quote attributed to him as “not accurate,” in a letter released after the story, and said Whittington had not made an agreement to release grand jury evidence and that any requests “will require the Court to analyze the need for maintaining secrecy of the records with the need for public disclosure of the records.”

It's perhaps self-serving on the part of the prosecutor, a way to show he did everything possible to secure an indictment, but let's hope the judge agrees to release the evidence. Even without that, given the grand jury transcripts that have already been released and the full sum of reporting that has already been donee, I'd love to see a Serial-like podcast from a lawyer or criminal law expert walking through the events on the night of the shooting and the subsequent investigation and court case.

Twitter is somewhat of a comfort now, a way to feel connected to the collective anguish of much of the country, but in a few months, maybe sooner, some will start tweeting "Remember Ferguson?" as some collective reprimand of our short term memory. Very soon, 140 character outbursts won't be enough, and that's where a longer form medium like a serial podcast would feel more appropriate.

Eyebrow on fleek

Look at the NBA's current league leaders in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and you'll find one player towering over the rest of the league by about the same margin as he towers over the average human being:

Rank Player PER
1 Anthony Davis-NOP 37
2 Brandan Wright-DAL 28.3
3 Stephen Curry-GSW 27.4
4 DeMarcus Cousins-SAC 27.2
5 Dirk Nowitzki-DAL 26.2
6 LeBron James-CLE 25.3
7 Chris Paul-LAC 24.8
8 Tyson Chandler-DAL 24.4
9 Derrick Favors-UTA 24.4
10 Dwyane Wade-MIA 23.8
11 Brandon Jennings-DET 23.7
12 Damian Lillard-POR 23.6
13 Gordon Hayward-UTA 23.4
14 Kyle Lowry-TOR 23.1
15 James Harden-HOU 22.9
16 Klay Thompson-GSW 22.8
17 Kyrie Irving-CLE 22.7
18 Jimmy Butler-CHI 22.6
19 Isaiah Thomas-PHO 22.3
20 LaMarcus Aldridge-POR 22.2

PER is a metric developed by John Hollinger who defined it this way: “The PER sums up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance.”

But without diving into the complex formula, all you need to know about Anthony Davis' current PER of 37 is that Michael Jordan owns the NBA record for career PER at 27.9. Jordan also owns the NBA career playoff record for PER at 28.6.

There are many great stories in the table above, but this is by far the most astonishing. Small sample size notwithstanding, what Anthony Davis has done thus far this season is play some of the best basketball that's ever been played. Just enjoy.

Eyebrow on fleek.

Total recall

Rob Smith uploaded photos from a holiday in France to Google+ which processed the pics using its AutoAwesome algorithm(s). When Smith went to look at the results, he spotted something peculiar with one of the photos.

It’s a nice picture, a sweet moment with my wife, taken by my father-in-law, in a Normandy bistro. There’s only one problem with it. This moment never happened.

I haven't opened Google+ in ages, I had no idea its algorithms would try to combine the best elements of photos shot in a burst. In this case, it looked to be trying to capture the best smiles from all the faces in the photo to put into a single composite.

You may say that the AIs in the cloud helped me out, gave me a better memory to store and share, a digestion of reality into the memory I wish had been captured.

But I’m reasonably sure you wouldn’t say that if this were a photo of Obama and Putin, smiling it up together, big, simultaneously happy buddies, at a Ukraine summit press conference. Then, I think algorithms automatically creating such symbolic moments would be a concern.

And why am I saying “then”? I’m certain it’s happening right now. And people are assuming that these automatically altered photos are “what happened”.

This was fairly seamless work on the part of the AI. Search for panoramic photo fails and you'll see some of the Frankensteinian horrors that can result from digital stitching gone awry. I half suspect the Human Centipede movies were inspired by a botched panoramic pic.

Book recommendations from Atul Gawande

Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today?

First, I should confess that while I’m an avid reader of fiction, I’m an amateur. I still have swaths to catch up on. But keeping that in mind, my all-time favorite novelist is Leo Tolstoy. He had this extraordinary capacity to see all the forces coming to bear on people at any given moment — desire, family, culture, history, accident — and to somehow bring the relevance of those forces alive without beating you about the head with it.

My favorite writing today: Hilary Mantel. I have zero interest in historical fiction, let alone historical fiction about the Reign of Terror or the court of Henry VIII. But she has that same Tolstoyan ability to make the odd and faraway worlds her characters inhabit feel like they matter to us. I want my writing about our own world to connect with people at least a little bit the way these writers do — meaning both viscerally and intellectually, and with a recognition of all the forces at work.

Who is your favorite doctor character in fiction?

Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been hooked on Sherlock Holmes for years — every story is a kind of diagnosis — and Watson’s is the inviting voice of the entire series. He is intelligent, observant and faithful, the way we want all doctors to be. He is also guileless and naïve, where Holmes is neither, and that is his ultimate limitation in each mystery. But his lack of cunning is why we trust him — and why Holmes does, too.

It's no surprise Atul Gawande is as well read as he is. Great writers seem, without exception, to be great readers.

Ethics of fighting Ebola

I can't think of too many people better qualified to break down the ethics of fighting Ebola than Peter Singer.

In this respect, Ebola is – or, rather, was – an example of what is sometimes referred to as the 90/10 rule: 90% of medical research is directed toward illnesses that comprise only 10% of the global burden of disease. The world has known about the deadly nature of the Ebola virus since 1976; but, because its victims were poor, pharmaceutical companies had no incentive to develop a vaccine. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies could expect to earn more from a cure for male baldness.

Government research funds in affluent countries are also disproportionately targeted toward the diseases that kill these countries’ citizens, rather than toward diseases like malaria and diarrhea that are responsible for much greater loss of life.

The most accurate way to judge the efficacy of a vaccine is through a double blind trial. One group of patients suffering from the malady are given the potential vaccine, the other set a placebo, and neither the doctors nor patients know who received what. When dealing with a shortage of vaccines and a disease as deadly as Ebola, the usual rules may not apply. That may be okay.

But, when facing a disease that kills up to 70% of those who are infected, and no accepted treatment yet exists, patients could reasonably refuse consent to a trial in which they might receive a placebo, rather than an experimental treatment that offers some hope of recovery. In such cases, it might be more ethical to monitor carefully the outcomes of different treatment centers now, before experimental treatments become available, and then compare these outcomes with those achieved by the same centers after experimental treatments are introduced. Unlike in a randomized trial, no one would receive a placebo, and it should still be possible to detect which treatments are effective.

Walking vs running a mile: the caloric output

To use the above, simply multiply your weight (in pounds) by the number shown. For example, if you weigh 188 lbs, you will burn about 107 calories (188 * .57) when you walk a mile, and about 135 calories (188 * .72) when you run a mile.

As you can see, running a mile burns roughly 26 percent more calories than walking a mile. Running a minute (or 30 minutes, or an hour, etc.) burns roughly 2.3 times more calories than the same total time spent walking.

Okay, now a few caveats. These calculations are all derived from an “average” weight of the subjects; there may be individual variations. Also, age and gender make a difference, though quite a modest one. Your weight is by far the biggest determinant of your calorie burn per mile. When you look at per-minute burn, your pace (your speed) also makes a big difference.

These calculations aren't meant to be precise. They are good approximations, and much more accurate than the old chestnut: You burn 100 calories per mile.

Walking a mile does not burn as many calories as running a mile.

Reading any tables of calories burned per minute for any activity is sobering. Running only burns 11 to 16 calories a minute. The painful truth is that modern society provides many fast and easy ways to add calories but few ways to burn them off quickly.

The age of surplus: we are drowning in both information and food.