Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Quantum Mechanics

While Einstein contributed extensively to the foundations of Quantum Mechanics, he refused to accept the philosophical ramifications of the whole field. His objection is probably best summarized by his famous quote: "My God does not play with dice."

If you think about it, the thematic differences are pretty profound. General Relativity implies that we can understand, describe, measure, (and potentially control) everything in the universe. Quantum Mechanics implies that we can't.

What I find interesting is that the Western way of understanding the world is very much like General Relativity. If you can't measure it, it doesn't exist/matter, which has led to a number of problems. Could some of our more systemic problems today be described metaphorically as stemming from our refusal to admit to this contradiction?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Think about it

"I can love you because I want to feel less alone, or I can love you because I want you to feel less alone. But only the latter requires me to imagine a consciousness independent of my own, and equally real."
-Garth Risk Hallberg, NYT Magazine Jan. 15, 2012

Friday, August 12, 2011

I am Verilazic

Who am I? I am the son of two parents. I am an employee with the company I work for. I am related to innumerable other people in the world. I also am known by several names. There's the name on my birth certificate, but there's also the name I go by when I interact and play with other people online. That name can be a few things, but most of the time it is Verilazic. If you google "Verilazic", you get 1920 results, most (if not all) of them are things I've written or said or done. It's a humble list, but it's still me and mine.

Today, I read a blog post by a person I greatly respect. The name I know him by is Tobold. He wrote that Google was threatening to delete his online identity because it does not match his identity in real life. I'm sure this is the result of Google trying to remove various false identities out there that exist for nefarious reasons, such as spam. However, if it's at the cost of destroying identities that have positive purposes, then it's not worth it.

I don't know Tobold in real life. But I've read his blog for several years now, and I respect his opinions, even when I disagree with them. My knowledge and understanding has been enriched by the existence of that identity. Moreover, if "Tobold" is at risk, then "Verilazic" is at risk as well. If I don't have the option of keeping the various spheres I exist and interact within separate, then I do not want to use Google's services.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Education is like Basketball

How's that for a title, eh? Allow me to explain this simile.

In the NBA, basketball teams are constantly trying to get the most out of their players. After all, winning sells tickets. If you don't win, you have nothing. So coaches tinker with their game plans, what plays to run, what defensive systems to employ, who to focus on, who to ignore, etc. They also tinker with which players on their own team should be playing and when. Obviously, the star of the team needs to play the most, but no player should be on the court the whole 48 minutes, so then begins the question of who should play when they're taking a break. And what players effectively complement that star? The value of "team chemistry" is debated perennially, but when a game can be decided by a single basket, in just a few seconds, that "team chemistry" matters as much as anything.

On top of that, team managers are watching every player, and compiling statistics on all the players in the league, in hopes of trading a player here or there for another team's player. The best trades lead to an improvement in both teams. How? Because we're talking about people here, and everyone has something different to offer.

In this extremely tense atmosphere, people have come up with dozens of numerical methods of measuring players' abilities and contributions on the court. One of the more interesting ones is referred to as "plus/minus". It shows a simple number that's either positive or negative: if while a player was playing, his team scored more than the other team, it's a positive number; otherwise it's negative. In theory, a player with a plus/minus of zero has no effect on how well his team performs.

So you would want to get rid of any player with a negative plus/minus, and only stock your team with players with positive plus/minus, right? Well, it's much much more complicated than that. It's quite possible to do in theory. However, plus/minus depends on a lot of factors. First of all, if you have a player who's only on the court with the best players on his team, he might have a much better plus/minus than if he was only on the court with the worst players on his team. Also, some positions in the game of basketball have been shown to have a greater potential effect on the performance of a team. The center position, held by the tallest player often has the greatest effect defensively, while the point guard, held by the shortest and (usually) smartest, has the greatest effect offensively. On top of that, if a great player is somehow playing more often against bad players, he might appear to be more effective, when in reality he just doesn't have as much of a challenge.

The point of that explanation is to show that a seemingly simple and elegant measurement is actually full of weaknesses when it comes time to use it in a practical environment. It's the same case with education.

People right now are trying all sorts of things to come up with a way of measuring teacher effectiveness. However, the problems are legion. A teacher with a gifted class of students from a high-income neighborhood will often seem to perform higher regardless of the teacher's ability. A teacher with a class of challenged students will obviously perform worse. How do you account for that numerically? Furthermore, a student's parents have been shown to have an equal if not greater effect on their child's performance in school. And what about the students' peers? A child in a class of gifted students will have an easier time learning regardless of whether he/she is gifted him/herself.

These effects are compounded over time. Imagine grading teachers based on how their students do after leaving their class. Well, what if those students go on to have several extremely effective teachers, or end up in classes with more gifted students. Or even more confounding, what if after a difficult year their parent signs them up for tutoring?

One might argue that like plus/minus in basketball, many of these scenarios can be balanced out by a large selection of data. While a player's plus/minus can vary wildly from game to game, it tends to average out to a more accurate value over the course of 82 games a year. This is true, yes. However, there are few teachers that get a large enough range of students in terms of ability to balance things out in that way. In other words, a school in a low income neighborhood is not going to have enough gifted students coming in its doors to give enough data on how their teachers could perform with better students. And all of this is assuming the tests themselves are accurate portrayals of student achievement. They're not.

The point of all this is to illustrate just how amazingly frustratingly complex the world of education is. To think you can reduce it all to numbers is naive. Yet the usefulness of reducing it all to numbers is irresistible.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Balancing by "not balancing"

Run with me on this. I just finished reading a great article on the Elder Game blog about how balancing in an MMO is ultimately a fruitless task. Then I thought back to another post I had read a while ago about the idea of Self-balancing systems. I have to come down on the idea that you simply can't balance everything. A truly "self-balancing" system would be probably more complex than the game itself.

But I did have one thought on how to try to... offset some of the players' expectations. I while ago I was thinking about how some many players complain about the random nature of a lot of MMO abilities. they all do random damage, and many have a random chance to "crit". When you get blown up by some mage who hit the jackpot in the lottery on his numbers and insta-gibbed it's pretty frustrating. Same for that mage who won't have that happen again for a week or a month or never. So why not take more of that randomness out of the random number generator, and put it into the environment?

What I mean is, make the effectiveness of abilities dependent on where and when you're fighting. If it's night time, an archer isn't going to hit quite as often, and maybe will get a critical hit even less often. During the winter, a character using frost-based magic will be a little stronger, while during the summer a fire-based character will be stronger. If there's a storm where you're fighting, maybe no one can get a critical hit because the wind is just blowing everyone around.

Not only natural things, but perhaps add some more supernatural effects as well. Deep underneath the ground are magical "Ley Lines" that follow paths that no one knows (but perhaps could figure out), and near them perhaps magic is stronger, or perhaps just more random.

Over time, the player community will figure out all these factors, and players will begin to consider their surroundings: "Oh why did I stupidly try to shoot down that warrior in this nighttime windstorm instead of just running?"; "There should be a Ley Line over there, I'll wait to ambush the caravan there."

The idea is that with a world that creates enough dynamic effects on how powerful each class is, players will notice a little less how "overpowered" certain classes or abilities might seem. Obviously this doesn't remove the need for balancing, but it might just lighten the load a tiny bit.

Friday, August 6, 2010

9-11: What does it mean to you?

This is a question that's been on my mind for a few days, since then news came out that some people are trying to build a mosque in New York City, a few blocks from ground zero. Of course, some people took real issue with that, and it's not purely a partisan issue. For people who lost friends and family in the September 11th attacks, or who were there trying to help or simply as witnesses, for many of them, the idea of harboring the very religion connected to the terrorists is repugnant.

I am not so intimately connected to the incident, so I really can only empathize so much. But I know this: if we target Islam as the culprit here, if we block the construction of this mosque, that is one more little victory that the terrorists get to add to their list of victories in the wake of 9-11.

When the terrorists set out to bomb the World Trade Center, they were targeting American citizens, yes, but their primary goal wasn't just to kill people. No, their goal was to damage our freedoms and ideals. They were attacking our culture. And judging by how we changed in years since, they succeeded. We became obsessed with security, arguably to a fault. Flying ceased to be just another method of travel; we spend ridiculous amounts of time screening for possible terrorists and bombs and such. Islam, before just another religion, though one with several countries that could use some social progress, now appears to many as some sort of infernal faith of hatred and destruction.

So here are my arguments why we should embrace this mosque with open arms. First, the terrorists are still winning right now; if we allow this, and idiot extremist Americans don't attack it, we finally hand the terrorists a legitimate ideological defeat. We prove that we are better than them. They felt threatened by our culture, etc, and so attacked us. We now feel threatened by them, and if we attack back, like we've done, can we really claim to be any better?

Second, we need to end the "war". In the past, wars ended when one side achieved victory. As in the destruction or surrender of their foe. I dare anyone to honestly claim that they think that is actually possible in this "war on terror". There is no country named Terror. It has no capital. It has citizens, but they're not collected all together in cities. The only way to reduce and hopefully someday remove the threat of terror is by removing the motivation to attack us. In other words, we need to turn enemies into friends instead of destroying them. It's been proven pretty effectively that trying to destroy our enemies is inefficient.

However, if we somehow prove to the Islamic world that we are not their enemies, if we help build up their nations, educate their people, and make them more comfortable, they will have less reason to hate us. And accepting a mosque right next to ground zero, and seeing and learning about Muslims honestly and face to face is an excellent start to that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

BP's Options

I feel like talking about some current events right now, mostly because the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is such a big deal. Talking about it months from now may or may not make sense, so might as well do it now.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I think this is going to be bad. Really bad. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the oil gushing out right now ends up on the shores of Europe or Africa. BP's CEO made a rather silly statement early on to the effect of "this spill is ok, because the ocean is really really big." I don't have to explain the silliness of that, but I do think that fact matters: it's the reason this isn't going to threaten our survival on the Earth.

So far, every attempt to plug the leak has failed. It's been somewhere around 50 days since the explosion; at this point the specific number of days loses significance. It's pretty clear that they can't stop it with anything other than the slow solution, though we don't know if that'll work either. The amount of oil that has spilled out is a subject of debate over estimates, but by now it's easy to assume it's more than anything in U.S history, and likely will be the worst in world history before it's done.

There are two things I hope will come of this. One is that hopefully this will become a major impetus for alternative energy. That's the easy one. The other probably won't happen, but would be nice, and very interesting: BP needs to change. The way this is going, they are in the running to become... well... "reviled" is a good world. They probably have a chance at surviving this as a company, but I think they'd have a better chance if they change their entire paradigm of operation.

How? By becoming a "do-gooder" company. Currently, BP's purpose in the world is to supply people with petroleum. That mission needs to change to supplying the world with energy, and repairing the damage done. I'd propose that instead of fining them out of business, we should give them a directive that they spend a portion of their time money and manpower to clean up the gulf oil spill, until it is cleaned up.

I remember reading something about that sort of concept of business in the book What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis. The idea is that instead of doing everything you can as a business to extract as much money as possible from the world, you instead extract as little as you can and stay in business. This has two purposes: one, it makes you look better, and two, it makes it almost impossible for some new company to show up and undercut your prices. A company's purpose (morally, logically, philosophically) is to create value, not to extract value. Most oil companies have been in the business of extracting value. Now if BP is to survive, and perhaps even flourish, it needs to start over with a new philosophy of creating value, through clean energy and through cleaning the mess it has made. If it's smart and energetic about it, it can survive and come out of this disaster and in 5-10 years be better off than it was before.

Do I think any of that will happen? No, I avoid having high expectations. Hopes, yes. Expectations, no.