10 more browser tabs

Still trying to clear out browser tabs, though it's going about as well as my brief flirtation with inbox zero. At some point, I just decided inbox zero was a waste of time, solving a problem that didn't exist, but browser tab proliferation is a problem I'm much more complicit in.

1. Why the coming-of-age narrative is a conformist lie

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.
 
‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
 

I've written about this before, but almost always, the worst type of film festival movie is about a young white male protagonist coming of age. Often he's quiet, introverted, but he has a sensitive soul. As my first year film school professor said, these protagonists are inert, but they just "feel things." Think Wes Bentley in American Beauty filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind for fifteen minutes with a camcorder, then showing it to a girl as if it's Citizen Kane.

If they have any scars or wounds, they are compensated for with extreme gifts. Think Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver; cursed with tinnitus since childhood, he listens to music on a retro iPod (let's squeeze some nostalgic product placement in here, what the hell, we're also going to give him a deaf black foster father to stack the moral cards in his favor, might as well go all the way) and is, that's right, the best getaway driver in the business.

Despite having about as much personality as a damp elephant turd, their beautiful souls are both recognized and extracted by a trope which this genre of film invented just for this purpose, the manic pixie dream girl.

[Nathan Rabin, who invented the term manic pixie dream girl, has since disavowed the term as sometimes misogynist, and it can be applied too broadly like a hammer seeking nails, but it doesn't undo the reality that largely white male writing blocs, from guilds to writer's rooms, aren't great at writing women or people of color with deep inner lives.]

This is tangential to the broader point, that the coming-of-age story as a genre is, in and of itself, a lie. It reminds me of the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, the classic book from James Carse. The Hollywood film has always promised a finite game, and thus it's a story that must have an ending. Coming-of-age is an infinite game, or at least until death, and so we should all be skeptical of its close-ended narrative.

(h/t Michael Dempsey)

2. Finite and Infinite Games and The Confederate

This isn't a browser tab, really, but while I'm on the topic of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, a book which provides a framework with which so much of the world can be bifurcated, and while I'm thinking about the white male dominated Hollywood profession, I can't help but think of the TV project The Confederate, by the showrunners of Game of Thrones.

"White people” is seen by many whites as a pejorative because it lowers them to a racial class whereas before they were simply the default. They are not accustomed to having spent their entire lives being named in almost every piece of culture as a race, the way women, people of color, and the union of the two are, every single day, by society and culture.

All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter is to pretend that we're all playing the same finite game when almost everyone who are losers in that game know it is not true. Blacks do not feel like they “won” the Civil War; every day today they live with the consequences and the shadow of America's founding racism, every day they continue to play a game that is rigged against them. That is why Ta Nehisi Coates writes that the question of The Confederate is a lie, and that only the victors of this finite game of America would want to relitigate the Civil War in some Alt History television show for HBO. It's as if a New England Patriot fan asked an Atlanta Falcons fan to watch last year's Super Bowl again, with Armie Hammer playing Tom Brady.

“Give us your poor, your huddled” is a promise that the United States is an infinite game, an experiment that struggles constantly towards bettering itself, evening the playing field, such that even someone starting poor and huddled might one day make a better life and escape their beginning state. That is why Stephen Miller and other white nationalists spitting on that inscription on the Statue of Liberty is so offensive, so dangerous.

On society, Carse writes:

The prizes won by its citizens can be protected only if the society as a whole remains powerful in relation to other societies. Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play. 
 
Because power is inherently patriotic, is is characteristic of finite players to seek a growth of power in a society as a way of increasing the power of a society.
 

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem is seen as unpatriotic by many in America, including the wealthy white owners of such teams, which is not surprising, as racism is a form of patriotism, per Carse, and part and parcel of American society when defined as a finite game.

Donald Trump and his large adult sons are proof of just how powerful the inheritance of title and money are in America, and the irony that they are elected by those who feel that successive rounds of finite games have started to be rigged against them is not lost on anyone, not even, I suspect, them. One could argue they need to take a lesson from those oppressed for far longer as to how a turn to nihilism works out in such situations.

Those attacking Affirmative Action want to close off the American experiment and turn it into a series of supposedly level finite games because they have accumulated a healthy lead in this game and wish to preserve it in every form.

White nationalists like Trump all treat America as not just a finite game, but a zero sum finite game. The idea of immigrants being additive to America, to its potential, its output, is to treat America as an infinite game, open-ended. The truth lies, as usual, between the poles, but closer to the latter.

Beware the prophet who comes with stories of zero-sum games, or as Jim Collins once wrote, beware the "tyranny of the or." One of my definitions of leadership is the ability to turn zero-sum into positive sum games.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Running Out of People to Offend

Speaking of fatigue with white male protagonists:

But if Larry David’s casual cruelty mirrors the times more than ever, the show might still fit awkwardly in the current moment. Watching the première of Season 9 on Sunday night, I kept thinking of a popular line from George Costanza, David’s avatar on “Seinfeld”: “You know, we’re living in a society!” Larry, in this first episode of the season, seems to have abandoned society altogether. In the opening shot, the camera sails over a tony swath of L.A., with no people and only a few cars visible amid the manicured lawns and terra-cotta roofs. It descends on Larry’s palatial, ivy-walled house, where he showers alone, singing Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” and bludgeoning a bottle of soap. (Its dispenser pump is broken—grounds for execution under the David regime.) He’s the master of his domain, yes, but only by default: no one else is around.
 
“Curb” has always felt insulated, and a lot of its best jokes are borne of the fact that Larry’s immense wealth has warped his world view over the years. (On the most recent season he had no compunction about spending a princely sum on Girl Scout Cookies, only to rescind the order out of spite.) But the beginning of Season 9 offers new degrees of isolation. Like a tech bro ensconced in a hoodie and headphones, Larry seems to have removed himself almost entirely from public life. Both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” like to press the limits of etiquette and social mores, but the latter often tested these on subway cars and buses, in parks or on the street. Much of “Curb,” by contrast, unfolds in a faceless Los Angeles of air-conditioned mansions, organic restaurants, and schmoozy fund-raisers, a long chain of private spaces. The only time Larry encounters a true stranger, it’s in the liminal zone between his car and the lobby of Jeff’s office. She’s a barber on her way to see Jeff at work—even haircuts happen behind closed doors now.
 

Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable

Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
 

If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man. 

In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.

Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.

Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.

[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]

4. Nathan for You

I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.

Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:

My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
 

If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.

For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.

For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.

In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.

But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.

[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]

BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?

What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?

It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.

5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere

I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.

So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.

6. Tuning AIs through captchas

Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.

AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"

7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker

I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:

But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
 
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the after­noon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
 

By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.

More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:

My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
 

So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:

The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
 

Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.

Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.

Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
 
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
 

Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls. 

He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.

What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.

8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus

Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.

Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.

I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.

I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."

Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.

9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights

When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.

What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.

What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.

This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.

As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.

A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?

The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.

Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.

I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.

People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.

10. Raising a teenage daughter

Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.

It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.

[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]

This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

The worst board games

FiveThirtyEight crunches the data and identifies what players consider to be the worst board games.

The outliers have a relatively large number of user ratings — people actually play them — and a relatively low average rating — people do not like to play them. This hall of shame includes War (the card game), tic-tac-toe, Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, The Game of Life and Monopoly.
 
The worst games, for the most part, have one thing in common: luck. They’re driven by it, often exclusively. Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders (also called Chutes and Ladders) and War are driven purely by chance. The Game of Life is close. It’s heavily chance-based, but one can make some decisions.4Overreliance on luck makes a game boring or frustrating or both. Good games are driven by skill, or, like Twilight Struggle, a healthy mix of skill and luck.
 

Luck is the reason I always hated playing Candy Land. It teaches you nothing at all, except perhaps to endure the random arrows of misfortune. At least some games of chance like blackjack teach you some basic probability theory.

I finally received my copy of what is considered the best board game, Twilight Struggle. Looking forward to cracking it open soon, though the manual is intimidating in its length.

Fantasy sports are underrated as a game in their cognitive lessons. Fantasy baseball, in particular, is a good teacher of statistics and asset management because of the predictability of player performance. Fantasy basketball is deterministic enough to be a useful teacher as well. Fantasy football, by virtue of all the injuries and extreme variance in game to game performance, is much too random to be as instructive, but playing is a great hack for upping your enjoyment of any random game if that's your goal.

 

Poker cheats

Given sufficient eyeballs and data, all cheating is shallow?

A YouTube video compilation of a 2009 poker tournament seems to show signaling between the two players that ended up finishing first and second.

Some background:

French players Jean Paul Pasqualini and Cedric Rossi are being accused of teaming up, by using hand signals to tell each other what cards they held. The eight minutes of damning video was put together by Nordine Bouya, another French poker player, and it shows the two accused time after time relaying their holdings by touching parts of their head and face.
 
Pasqualini and Rossi went on to first and second place in that tournament, respectively. Pasqualini won 1 million euros, while Rossi pocketed over 600k.

 

The poker-playing AI

Researchers recently announced that they'd developed a poker bot that had weakly solved heads-up limit hold'em poker. That is, essentially the poker bot is unbeatable in a fair game, luck notwithstanding.

But although bluffing looks like a very human, psychological element of the game, it’s not. You can calculate how to bluff optimally. “Bluffing falls out of the mathematics of the game”, says Bowling. If you’re dealt a jack, say, it is possible to figure out how often you should ideally bluff with it. Some of the early pioneers of game theory, such as John von Neumann, aimed to develop mathematical strategies for bluffing. 

The real challenge for a poker algorithm is dealing with the immense number of possible ways the game can be played. Bowling and colleagues have looked at one of the most popular forms, called Texas Hold’em, in which the dealer deals two cards to each player (face down) and also a set of face-up “community cards”. Players can bet, raise or fold after each deal. With just two players, the game becomes Heads-up, and it is a “limit” game when it has fixed bet sizes and a fixed number of raises. There are 3.16×10^17 states that HULHE can reach, and 3.19×10^14 possible points where a player must make a decision. 

The new algorithm involves calculating all possible decisions in advance, so that they can just be looked up as a game proceeds. This is done in a learning process: the strategy begins by making decisions randomly, and is then updated by experience as the algorithm attaches a “regret” value to each decision depending on how poorly it fared. It takes a little more than 1500 training rounds to make the program essentially invincible.

What caught my eye is how they solved the problem. One of the keys to dealing with the problem was actually just a data-compression solution.

The other crucial innovation was the handling of the vast amounts of information needing to be stored to develop and use the strategy – of the order of 262 terabytes. This volume of data demands disk storage, which is slow to access. The researchers figured out a data-compression method that reduces the volume to a more manageable 11 TB, and which adds only 5% to the computation time from the use of disk storage.

You can try playing this new poker bot online.

It's an impressive advance, but I wonder how long until they can solve multi-player no-limit Texas Hold'em. It's a much more complex game than heads-up limit hold'em.

SimCity's homelessness problem

SimCity's homeless people are represented as yellow, two-dimensional, ungendered figures with bags in tow. Their presence makes SimCity residents unhappy, and reduces land value. Like many other players, Bittanti discovered the online discussions when he was searching for a way to deal with them.

At first, players wondered if they were having so much problems with the homeless in their cities because of a bug in the game. Like many of 2014's big-budget games that launched in broken or barely-functional statesSimCity originally would only work if players connected to EA's servers, which repeatedly crashed under the load of players. It seemed possible that the homeless problem in SimCity was simply a mistake.

"Has anyone figured out a easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?" asks one player on EA' site. "Create jobs, either through zoning or upgrading road density near industry, that helped me a lot," another player suggests.

Amazing. Professor Matteo Bittanti has collected online discussions about how to eradicate homelessness in 2013 SimCity in a two volume book called How to get rid of homeless. Volume 1 costs $150, Volume 2 $70.

Since Simcity is a game simulation of urban planning, it's impossible not to regard it as a standard bearer for the arrogance of Silicon Valley technological solutionism and difficult not to invoke Baudrillard. Given the income inequality of the Bay Area and its own notable homelessness problems, this is the most Silicon Valley-ish story I've read in weeks, I'm surprised I didn't read it in Valleywag or Gawker.

Miscellany

Does retweeting your own praise make you a monster? I know what Betteridge has to say about headlines, but if by monster you mean narcissist, then yes? And on the subject of narcissism, I find it rich that people take to Twitter to complain about the narcissism of selfie sticks and then you click through to their profile and they've tweeted something like 12,000 times. Okay.

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A definitive history of fleek. Just when I was starting to work it into my language, it becomes passé. Damn you iHop.

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The best rapper alive for every year since 1979 according to Complex. The first woman appears in the most recent year, 2014. Someone had to go make this list so everyone could post their outrage in the comment thread, and Complex was the one to accept this burden on behalf of humanity.

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Is this the best board game on the planet? I have not played board games in years, but I'm going to get this and see if it rekindles my interest.

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Maybe being physically cold actually does make you more susceptible to catching a cold. Grandma and mom were right, as usual.

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

Relativity as video game

Willy Chyr is turning MC Escher's Relativity into a video game.

MC Escher's work has been referenced and remixed countless times in popular culture, from The Simpsons to The Matrix, including other Escherian video games like Monument Valley. How do you respond to these other Escher remixes in Relativity?

One work that has had a big influence on Relativity is Inception, specifically the scene where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) are walking through Paris in the dream world, and Cobb is teaching her how to manipulate dreams. Ariadne then asks “What happens when you start messing with the physics of it?” and proceeds to fold the city in half. A little later, you see Cobb and Ariadne walk up a street that’s 90 degrees to their original plane.

When I saw this scene for the first time, I immediately had a ton of questions. What if you took an object from the world on the ceiling? If you let go, would it fall back towards the ceiling because that’s where its respective gravity is pointed? And if so, could you place an object from your gravity on top of that ceiling object, and have them balance in midair? I was imagining all these crazy possibilities. Unfortunately, Inception didn’t really dive into that apsect of that world. But that’s where Relativity comes in. I want to put players in the world shown in that scene, and let them play with objects from different gravities, and see what happens.

More about the game at its website. Speaking of gravity, if I knew how I'd insert Matthew McConaughey into the animated GIF above.

The interview with Chyr concludes with asking him what he has planned after he finishes the game.

I’m thinking of going to culinary school.