Minecraft as platform

Fun appreciation of Minecraft by Robin Sloan.

To play, you must seek information elsewhere.

Was it a conscious decision? A strategic bit of design? I don’t know. Maybe Markus Persson always intended to create an in-game tutorial but never got around to it. If so: lucky him, and lucky us, because by requiring the secret knowledge to be stored, and sought, elsewhere, he laid the foundation for Minecraft’s true form.

Minecraft-the-game, maintained in Sweden by Persson’s small studio, is just the seed, or maybe the soil. The true Minecraft (no italics, for we are speaking of something larger now) is the game plus the sprawling network of tutorials, wikis, galleries, videos—seriously, search for “minecraft” on YouTube and be amazed—mods, forum threads, and more. The true Minecraft is the oral tradition: secrets and rumors shared in chat rooms, across cafeteria tables, between block-faced players inside the game itself.
 

When I first started working on the Amazon Web Services team in 2003, one of the things Jeff Bezos hammered home to us was the importance of building everything at the most atomic level possible so they could be reassembled in ways unimaginable even to us. I had lunch with him once and we were talking about our interests outside of work, and he mentioned his love of this book Creation: Life and How to Make It by Steve Grand. The book discusses, among other things, how complex things can be built if you have the right building blocks, and one of the most important attributes of those building blocks was that they be defined as simply and atomically as possible.

So, for example, when we discussed a payment web service, Jeff didn't want a security layer built in. That was something separate from the core of an atomic payments service which should just be about sending and receiving money. 

I have not played Minecraft before, but Sloan's article gives me the sense it has that same atomic nature that characterizes generative platforms for really creative work.

My favorite networked services all have that quality, but capturing value from these building blocks in the form of revenue is a trickier problem and often involves building products and services on top of that very platform.

One of my favorite and most beautifully atomic building blocks of the web, Twitter, is grappling with that same issue. I've been meaning to share some thoughts on some possible ways forward for Twitter because the possibilities are fun to contemplate and it's a service I really love. That's a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that they have huge potential given their elegant architecture, and that can be both a blessing and a curse as some Chinese proverb goes. 

The biology of risk

That was the title of a fascinating opinion piece by John Coates from back in early June in the NYTimes.

Most of us tend to believe that stress is largely a psychological phenomenon, a state of being upset because something nasty has happened. But if you want to understand stress you must disabuse yourself of that view. The stress response is largely physical: It is your body priming itself for impending movement.

As such, most stress is not, well, stressful. For example, when you walk to the coffee room at work, your muscles need fuel, so the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol recruit glucose from your liver and muscles; you need oxygen to burn this fuel, so your breathing increases ever so slightly; and you need to deliver this fuel and oxygen to cells throughout your body, so your heart gently speeds up and blood pressure increases. This suite of physical reactions forms the core of the stress response, and, as you can see, there is nothing nasty about it at all.

Far from it. Many forms of stress, like playing sports, trading the markets, even watching an action movie, are highly enjoyable. In moderate amounts, we get a rush from stress, we thrive on risk taking. In fact, the stress response is such a healthy part of our lives that we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response.
 

Coates notes that the challenge response in humans is particularly sensitive to uncertainty and novelty, causing an elevation in cortisol which reduces our appetite for risk.

Based on that thesis, Coates argues that in reducing uncertainty about upcoming interest rate movies, Greenspan and Bernanke have actually “one of the most powerful brakes on excessive risk taking in stocks was released,” leading to much greater stock market volatility and more dramatic stock market booms and busts.

It may seem counterintuitive to use uncertainty to quell volatility. But a small amount of uncertainty surrounding short-term interest rates may act much like a vaccine immunizing the stock market against bubbles. More generally, if we view humans as embodied brains instead of disembodied minds, we can see that the risk-taking pathologies found in traders also lead chief executives, trial lawyers, oil executives and others to swing from excessive and ill-conceived risks to petrified risk aversion. It will also teach us to manage these risk takers, much as sport physiologists manage athletes, to stabilize their risk taking and to lower stress.
 

I watched more soccer (I'd use football but most posts tagged football in my blog will be about the American rendition, so for disambiguation I'm going to use what soccer fans would consider the profane nomenclature) than I have in my entire life up until now this summer because of the World Cup. People put on the game in the office, and everywhere I went it seemed some American TV was dialed to a game.

[This is a topic for another post, but I am curious about what drove this noticeable uptick in interest in soccer in the U.S. this summer. Was it the greater build out of social media? The success of the U.S. team? Increased coverage on ESPN? The fact that games were in the U.S. timezone this time, unlike the next World Cup or this past Winter Olympics? The rise of MLS? All or none of the above?]

While I'm far from a soccer expert, I did detect a noticeable tightening of game play in overtime. This could purely be because of fatigue, but it led to a less interesting form of play in those periods.

Coates' theory of the relationship between risk-taking and uncertainty reminded me of one of my pet peeves about many sports: the many mental traps that reduce risk-taking in athletes and coaches. From a sports design perspective, I'd argue that fans would prefer greater daring from players and teams more often. Volatility, with dramatic boom and busts, may be not be desirable when it comes to your finances, but in sports and entertainment it's the building block for more compelling drama.

It's not just soccer. The reluctance of football coaches to go for it on fourth down more often is another example where reduced risk lowers entertainment value. The irony is that mathematically, what feels like riskier behavior may be the more rational play. The math supports going for it on fourth down most if not all the time. In soccer, ending overtime deadlocked leads to the randomness of penalty kicks. I'm not conversant on the statistics around soccer, but leaving your fate to penalty kicks feels less certain than just trying to win in overtime.

If the players and coaches won't behave rationally, however, they can have their hands forced by rule changes. What if the NFL just banned punting? Everyone would go for it on fourth down, and I'm confident that would be a more exciting game. What if soccer's overtime were sudden death?

My ideal sports design guiding philosophy: maximize entropy but still reward skilled play. That is, you can let the rough at the U.S. Open grow wild so golfers have to try to stay in the fairways or risk having to hack their way out of the weeds. You can shorten the first round 7 game series in the NBA to 5 games to give the underdog a greater chance.

Don't design a game so skill-based that the outcome is never in doubt. There's a reason why people don't watch televised checkers. But also don't design a game so random that every contestant has an equal chance of winning regardless of skill. You might as well watch two teams flip a coin.

Beware destination shareholder meetings

Li and Yermack look at data on 10,000 annual shareholder meetings held between 2006 and 2010. In one set of companies that in a certain year choose to hold their shareholder meeting at least 1,000 miles from the corporate headquarters. After such meetings, the company is more likely to announce unfavorable quarterly earnings, and also experiences an stock market return 3.7% less than a benchmark for the overall stock market over the following six months.

Similarly, when a company holds its shareholder meeting at least 50 miles from a major airport, its stock underperforms the market benchmarks in the following six months. When companies hold their meeting both more than 50 miles a major airport and more than 50 miles from corporate headquarters, the company's stock underperforms the market by 6.8% in the six months after the meeting.

Just to be clear, this effect is not rooted in effects from companies that are already known to be performing poorly, or already facing controversy, before the shareholder meeting occurs.
 

More here.

Destination weddings are more fun, though, in my opinion.

Protecting heterogeneous activity

Freedom is the ability to allocate your resources differently.  The majority allocates their resources in one direction...and you can choose to allocate your resources in a different direction. 

The perfect example is the story of Noah's ark.  Does it bother you that the story is fictitious?  It really shouldn't.  As the story goes...God informs Noah that he's going to destroy the world with a flood.  This information provides Noah with the incentive to use his resources to build a giant boat.  Even though he shares his partial knowledge with others...he's the only one who acts on it.  Everybody else laughs at him because they really doubt the business model.  The majority believes one thing and an extremely small minority believes another thing.  Both groups can't be right.  And in this case, neither can both groups be wrong.  Either the world will be destroyed by a flood...or it won't be.  Despite the fact that each group is certain that the other is wrong...there's no attempt to restrict each other's freedom.  Each group can allocate their resources differently.  The majority takes one path...and the minority takes another path.  It's a good thing that Noah's freedom was not restricted because it turns out that he chose the right path. 

The moral of the story is that heterogeneous activity is essential.  Because the future is uncertain...we should hedge our bets by protecting individual freedom.  Doing so maximizes the variety of economic activity which maximizes discovery which maximizes progress.
 

More here, interesting throughout. Isn't this a great description of Silicon Valley? Worth remembering the next time someone is ready to publish another piece of outrage when some wacky startup like Yo raises a million dollars in financing or someone raises over $50,000 on Kickstarter to make potato salad (the latter is hilarious to me and not reason for mass outrage; consider it either as a mass Duchampian art installation or as an economic transfer from the gullible to the clever).

Cohen wants you to believe that your immediate intuition, sharing is caring, is the correct one.  But in reality, the correct intuition is that recognizing and respecting ownership results in far greater abundance of the things that we value enough to sacrifice for.  Protecting ownership incentivizes people to choose the paths that others have positively valuated or might positively valuate.  If we, as consumers, want a greater abundance of apples...then we have to reward the producers who've chosen to grow apples.  This ties into the idea of value signals...

Here's a summary...

  1. Sylvia discovers a bunch of apples (risk)
  2. Others are willing to pay for her apples (valuation)
  3. If the value signal is bright enough, others will start supplying apples (incentive)
  4. The result is the optimum supply of apples (abundance)
     

It's a long post that delves into many other topics including a discussion of war and its impact on government spending and whether that's an optimal outcome. But what struck a chord with me was the importance of a lack of centralized funding allocation structure in Silicon Valley, and why that's important to protecting heterogeneous activity within the technology sector. It's one of the secrets to the generative nature of this sector.

Pragmatarianism is one of the blogs I recently discovered that made it into my browser toolbar. I'll point you to one last passage from this same post.

Michael Michaud is the author of Contact with Alien Civilizations.  He's under the impression that chances are pretty good that alien visitors wouldn't have discovered that progress depends on freedom.  It shouldn't be a surprise though given that he himself hasn't made this discovery. 

As I've argued in a few blog entries...

...contrary to Michaud, I believe that it's highly unlikely that extraterrestrial visitors wouldn't have figured out that progress depends on discovery...and discovery depends on doing things differently.  You're really not going to get different results by doing the exact same thing over and over.  Thinking otherwise is, according to Einstein, insane. 

Regarding Michaud's specific example...as history clearly proves...a certain amount of progress can be made without understanding that progress depends on freedom.  This is because it's extremely difficult to completely eradicate freedom.  But if Hitler had successfully managed to conquer the world...would the rate of progress have increased or decreased?  The rate of progress would have plummeted because far fewer people would have been free to allocate their resources differently. 
 

Could it be that the premise of almost every movie about our first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence is flawed? Could the difficulty of traveling through space be an effective filter on war-mongering alien races, and should we instead presume that any civilization enlightened enough to travel light years across space to reach us would understand more than anyone the value of leaving us humans our freedom?

I'd love to see more utopic science fiction movies that use technology as a source of improvements in life. Not all roads have to lead to Skynet, and most probably don't.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

It feels ridiculous to post a link found from Kottke (especially one that came via Alexis Madrigal) since I assume everyone has already seen it, but this article on analyzing cities like one would the molecular structure of materials intrigued me. Will this modeling actually yield value? I'm skeptical of any algorithm that puts Los Angeles and Seattle in the same bucket.

The premise is intriguing, but the question of the value of metaphor is even more important.

Are materials and metropolises really comparable? And if so, is the comparison useful as more than a metaphor? The urban planning community, which has its roots in the design world, has historically been wary of science’s attempts to capture the incredible complexity of the urban environment. (In her classic 1961 book “The Death and Life of American Cities,” Jane Jacobs lambasted modern urban planning itself as a “pseudoscience,” in which “years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.”)

But it is warming to these efforts. Today scientists are some of the leading investigators of urban design issues. “There have been ideas about cities since Aristotle and Plato,” said Luis Bettencourt, professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. “But the ways we can measure cities, test ideas, and compare cities across time and place and size has become so much more possible, that we can now test those ideas.” Bettencourt, who was trained as a theoretical physicist, published a paper in Science last summer proposing a new quantitative framework for understanding cities: They are a unique complex system, he argues, with predictable social, spatial, and infrastructure properties.
 

It's a worthwhile question to ask because I've long thought Silicon Valley and the technology world to be dangerously addicted to metaphor. If you look hard enough, almost anything can be found to resemble something else, but that does not mean outcomes in one system can be used to predict outcomes in another.

But pattern recognition is a reflexive habit for venture capitalists and technology prognosticators. When the future is unknown, we look to history as a guide because hindsight is rich in specific outcomes. This can be a dangerous trap when the similarity in patterns occur at the surface but result from differing underlying dynamics.

Modeling is one form of metaphor, and it can also be dangerous (recall the first chapter of Kieslowski's masterpiece The Decalogue, based on the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me."). However, the increased digitization and measurement of the world has made it possible to model many more natural phenomenon.

Look at the recent success of people with finance backgrounds moving over into the sports franchise ownership and management. Jonah Keri examined one such successful crossover in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, but most teams not run entirely by finance alumni still employ quantitative analysts to pore over data and model out player and franchise performance, not to mention attendance and revenue. With advanced camera systems and statistical tracking come more data with which to build models of individual and team performance at greater resolution. Sports previously thought to be too complex to model (mostly team sports like basketball, football, soccer, and hockey, which lack the volume of discrete individual confrontations that baseball offers) are being understood at a deeper level using technology like the SportVU camera systems, and even baseball is being understood at a finer level by its own implementation of 3D camera tracking and systems like PitchFX.

When is there enough data to use a model for prediction? I thought of this when reading about the analysis of cities as molecular structures, and it recalled the legendary city of Magnasanti, the so-called perfect city.

If you haven't heard of Magnasanti, it's likely because it's not a real world city but a virtual city built in the game SimCity a few years ago by a young architecture student named Vincent Ocasla.

This video provides an overview of Magnasanti, as does this interview with Ocasla.

Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi seems to have been a big inspiration.
It very much was--I first watched it in 2006. The film presented the world in a way I never really looked at before and that captivated me. Moments like these compel me to physically express progressions in my thought, I have just happened to do that through the form of creating these cities in SimCity 3000. I could probably have done something similar--depicting the awesome regimentation and brutality of our society--with a series of paintings on a canvas, or through hideous architectural models. But it wouldn’t be the same as doing it in the game, because I wanted to magnify the unbelievably sick ambitions of egotistical political dictators, ruling elites and downright insane architects, urban planners, and social engineers.

I’ve a quote from one of your Facebook status updates here: “The economic slave never realizes he is kept in a cage going round and round basically nowhere with millions of others.” Do you feel that sums up the lives of the citizens of Magnasanti? (And you might want to set your Facebook to private by the way.)
Precisely that. Technically, no one is leaving or coming into the city. Population growth is stagnant. Sims don’t need to travel long distances, because their workplace is just within walking distance. In fact they do not even need to leave their own block. Wherever they go it’s like going to the same place.

Heavy.
There are a lot of other problems in the city hidden under the illusion of order and greatness--suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle--this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population. It’s a sick and twisted goal to strive towards. The ironic thing about it is the sims in Magnasanti tolerate it. They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years. 50,000 years to be exact. They are all imprisoned in space and time.
 

If you look at how Ocasla achieved the perfect city in SimCity (I have not played the game in years but “perfect” in this case is measured by in-game metrics such as citizen happiness, crime rates, the number of abandoned buildings, etc), Ocasla came up with a symmetrical layout based on the Buddhist Wheel of Life and Death. The symmetry means everyone has the same amenities within a short distance of their residence, so there's no need to travel a lot for those because everyone has their version nearby. There are no roads, only subways, and there are lots of police stations, one of the things that gives Magnasanti its totalitarian feel.

If this is the ideal city in SimCity I have severe doubts as to the sophistication of the game's simulation. It looks one roadless suburb with the same strip mall in the center of each, all with the same exact stores: Chipotle, Starbucks, a Best Buy, maybe a Home Depot. The same suburbs that are seeing ghettoization and an outflow of residents into urban centers. Where is the art museum, the local sports stadium? How do you replicate restaurants from star chefs?

Despite all that, I could see China trying to build a Magnasanti prototype in their countryside.

Stories as religion

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.
 

Robin Hanson on stories as religion. He mentions Syd Field's famous book on screenwriting Screenplay as one of the influences that codified this predominant form of Hollywood storytelling.

This notion of justice in movies is indeed the dominant model in Western filmmaking, to the point where movies sacrifice the unexpected in the name of conformity to norms of morality.

However, in some cultures, movies don't reflect such optimism about the world. When I was a child my dad would rent many Chinese movies from local video stores, and I was struck by the dearth of happy endings. Families lost children to tragic accidents, wives suffered in marriages to abusive husbands, citizens suffered again and again at the hands of heartless government bureaucrats, institutions, and policies.

Having grown up mostly on a diet of Hollywood films up until that point, it was a shock to the system. Where in the world would people make movies with such a grim worldview? Perhaps this is one reason Hollywood movies make for such good exports.

Now that I have several thousand movies under my belt, I'm more easily bored by movies that adhere to the "good guys win out" archetype. Genre movies still intrigue me, but predominantly when directors play off the form. Film festivals are a draw for their wealth of movies that work outside storytelling conventions. I'm curious to watch Boyhood not just because of the way it was filmed (over 12 years, using the same actors) but because Richard Linklater has always been a bit of a sui generis in Hollywood.

With the internet, cord-cutting, and the slowdown of growth in per capita attendance of the movies, perhaps we've also reached the peak of demand for the 90 to 120 minute filmed drama. Art forms have always come and gone, and the movie drama has had a good run. It's not likely to just disappear, but its cultural and economic pull may never be as great again.

Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from San Francisco given that I last lived in Los Angeles with a ton of movie-loving film school classmates, but fewer and fewer people, especially those in Generation's Y and Z, seem to love the movies. Isn't this how you suddenly graduate to being old? One day you just look at the younger generation and wonder why they're on YouTube and Snapchat and Tumblr instead of appreciating movies the way you do. It just sneaks up on you, and then you're gaping across the chasm.

In another fascinating post on the same subject, Hanson writes:

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

The economics of South Korean TV

Fascinating article on the unabashed leveraging of product placement to finance the ever popular South Korean TV dramas.

While details of product placement deals are not disclosed, industry sources say exposure on popular shows costs at least 100 million won ($96,000) and much more for a hit drama featuring A-list stars with a regional following.

The biggest spender of all is Samsung — the world’s largest technology firm by revenue — which sponsors around two thirds of all domestically-produced soap operas, according to Kim Si-hyun, head of 153 Production, a major PPL agency in Seoul.

“It’s a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics like smartphones, computers, cameras, air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end,” Kim said.

Commodification of the dramas begins at the earliest stage of production, once a script writer has produced a basic story line listing characters and their professions.

The workplaces that will feature in the show are offered for sale to real companies looking for exposure.

According to Kim from 153 Production, the workplace of a lead character can go for between 500 million and 1 billion won.

That was how the female lead in “The Heirs” — a teenage romance that was a huge hit in Asia last year — ended up working for Mango Six.
 

More of note within, including just how effective such placement can be.

The South Korean TV industry is a machine. In the time a US studio takes to make one 24 episode season of television, South Korea will have produced two or more 30 to 50 hour K-dramas. Some of that relies on some brutal filming schedules as I've heard from some of my film school classmates that have worked in Korea, but it also comes from a heavy reliance on story archetypes, simplified lighting setups, and a stable of goto actors that cut down casting lead times. It's a formula, but thus far it hasn't exhausted its millions of devoted viewers throughout Asia.

Anomaly

Great piece by Rany Jazayerli on the mysterious formula of success of MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle.

In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, Bill James described “The Tommy John family of pitchers” as having “5 things in common.” James wrote:

1. They are all left-handed.
2. They are control-type pitchers.
3. They cut off the running game very well.
4. They receive excellent double-play support.
5. They allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower-than-normal totals for a control pitcher.

This combination of abilities or tendencies enables this family of pitchers to be effective and to win at unusually high levels of hits per game, which then is another defining characteristic of the group.

Points four and five are essentially the same thing. James didn’t have access to ground ball/fly ball data 30 years ago, but he’s basically saying that Tommy John–style pitchers are extreme ground ball pitchers; ground balls lead to double plays and don’t lead to home runs. John himself allowed more than a hit per inning in his career, but many of those runners were wiped out on 6-4-3s.3

Buehrle would fit into the Tommy John family of pitchers perfectly, except for one small detail: He isn’t a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball rate of 45 percent is just barely higher than league average, and thanks to spending most of his career at U.S. Cellular Field, he has surrendered 333 home runs in 3,009 career innings, a rate of exactly 1.00 per nine innings; John allowed 302 home runs in a career that spanned 4,710 innings. Thanks to all of those home runs in addition to hits surrendered on balls in play, Buehrle has allowed a higher batting average (.272) than John did (.265), even with a higher strikeout rate.
 

It's worth reading the piece to find out which two factors isolates as being enough to tip Buehrle over from failure to success, and just how fine that line is (as measured in outs and runs).