The Chamber of Sounds
I stand here, in my small closet, locked away from all other life.
For as long as I can remember I have been here, nutrient tubes running to my veins keeping me alive and filtering my wastes. I imagine there must be a ventilation shaft as well, to keep me supplied with air. I don’t know if there is – the multitude of sounds always drowns it out.
I believe I am in a space ship, for far away I can hear the thunder of the engines. Maybe this is a maintenance space of some kind, for surely it isn’t normal to hear so many sounds: the bubbling of water in pipes, the whirling wheels of maintenance robots, the constant clicking of communications relays. All this I hear but cannot see, the darkness of my closet enveloping me at all times.
And then there are the voices, the automated electronical voices spitting out status reports in binary. I cannot make out what they are saying, cannot grasp the inhuman tongue of the machines. There are many of them, and they all sound the same, their bizarre sound giving me a sense of peace, of order.
I believe it is a chasm I’m next to, from the way the sounds and voices echo. A deep, huge tunnel full of wires, full of pipes and full of voices. Surely it must go on near forever, lasting miles and miles and perhaps never end. Maybe it is lined with closets like mine, filled with people kept inside for eternities.
Who I am or why I am here, I do not know. At times I ponder these things, but those ponderings never lead me to any end – after all, this is the only world I’ve ever known of. The one of sounds and the one of machines, the one of peace but not of quiet.
As the stars burn and the ship’s engines burn I stay locked here, locked here for eternities as I always have. It is just me and the machines, and all is as it should be.
This work by Kaj Sotala is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
In addition to making a public comment, you may also send me anonymous feedback.
If you like my writing, you can also support me via GitTip.
> If you find yourself repeatedly in situations where people ask you to do something for them, but at the end they don't seem to appreciate what you did for them, or don't even care about the thing they asked you to do... and yet you find it difficult to say "no"... ask them to contribute to the project first. [...]
> Alice: "Hi Bob! You are a programmer, right?"
> Bob: "Hi Alice! Yes, I am."
> Alice: "I have this cool idea, but I need someone to help me. I am not good with computers, and I need someone smart whom I could trust, so they wouldn't steal my idea. Would you have a moment to listen to me?" [...]
> [Bob:] "Okay, Alice, I will make the website for you. But first I need to know exactly how the page will look like, so that I don't have to keep changing it over and over again. So here is the homework for you -- take a pen and paper, and make a sketch of how exactly the web will look like. All the dialogs, all the buttons. Don't forget logging in and logging out, editing the customer profile, and everything else that is necessary for the website to work as intended. Just look at the papers and imagine that you are the customer: where exactly would you click to register, and to find the bicycle you want? Same for the vendor. And possibly a site administrator. Also give me the list of criteria people will use to find the bike they want. Size, weight, color, radius of wheels, what else? And when you have it all ready, I will make the first version of the website. But until then, I am not writing any code."
> Alice leaves, satisfied with the outcome.
> This happened a year ago.
> No, Alice doesn't have the design ready, yet. Once in a while, when she meets Bob, she smiles at him and apologizes that she didn't have the time to start working on the design. Bob smiles back and says it's okay, he'll wait. Then they change the topic.
Require contributions in advance
> Stack fallacy is the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours. [...] In the 1990s, Larry Ellison saw SAP make gargantuan sums of money selling process automation software (ERP) — to him, ERP was nothing more than a bunch of tables and workflows — so he spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to own that market, with mixed results. Eventually, Oracle bought its way into the apps market by acquiring PeopleSoft and Siebel. [...]
> Very few people will imagine they can build a computer chip just because they can build relational database software, but because of our familiarity with building blocks of the layer up, it is easy to believe you can build the ERP app. After all, we know tables and workflows.
> The bottleneck for success often is not knowledge of the tools, but lack of understanding of the customer needs. Database engineers know almost nothing about what supply chain software customers want or need. They can hire for that, but it is not a core competency.
> In a surprising way, it is far easier to innovate down the stack than up the stack.
> The reason for this is that you are yourself a natural customer of the lower layers. Apple knew what it wanted from an ideal future microprocessor. It did not have the skills necessary to build it, but the customer needs were well understood. Technical skills can be bought/acquired, whereas it is very hard to buy a deep understanding of market needs.
> It is therefore no surprise that Apple had an easier time building semiconductor chips than building Apple Maps.
Why Big Companies Keep Failing: The Stack Fallacy | TechCrunch
> On average, since 1980, occupations with above-average computer use have grown substantially faster.
> How can this be? It might seem a sure thing that automating a task would reduce employment in an occupation. But that logic ignores some basic economics: Automation reduces the cost of a product or service, and lower prices tend to attract more customers. Software made it cheaper and faster to trawl through legal documents, so law firms searched more documents and judges allowed more and more-expansive discovery requests. Likewise, ATMs made it cheaper to operate bank branches, so banks dramatically increased their number of offices. So when demand increases enough in response to lower prices, employment goes up with automation, not down.
The Automation Paradox
Communication usually fails, except by accident:
> In the late 1940s, the Communist government of Yugoslavia broke from the Soviet Union, raising fears that the Soviets would invade. In March 1951 [US intelligence under Sherman Kent reported there was a “serious possibility” of a Soviet attack.] But a few days later, Kent was chatting with a senior State Department official who casually asked, “By the way, what did you people mean by the expression ‘serious possibility’? What kind of odds did you have in mind?” Kent said he was pessimistic. He felt that the odds were about 65 to 35 in favor of an attack. The official was startled. He and his colleagues had taken “serious possibility” to mean much lower odds.
> Disturbed, Kent went back to his team. They had all agreed to use “serious possibility” in the [report], so Kent asked each person, in turn, what he thought it meant. One analyst said it meant odds of about 80%. Another thought it meant odds of 20% – exactly the opposite. Other answers were scattered between those extremes. Kent was floored. A phrase that looked informative was so vague as to be almost useless…
> In 1961, when the CIA was planning to topple the Castro government by landing a small army of Cuban expatriates at the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy turned to the military for an unbiased assessment. The Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that the plan had a “fair chance” of success. The man who wrote the words “fair chance” later said he had in mind odds of 3 to 1 against. But Kennedy was never told precisely what “fair chance” meant and, not unreasonably, he took it to be a much more positive assessment.
(also lots more of interesting excerpts from "Superforecasting" in the post)
List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of “Superforecasting”
Yesterday evening I went to the grocery store, and was startled to realize that I was suddenly in a totally different world.
Computer games have difficulty grabbing me these days. Many of the genres I used to enjoy as a kid have lost their appeal: point-and-click -style adventure requires patience and careful thought, but I already deal with plenty of things that require patience and careful thought in real life, so for games I want something different. 4X games mostly seem like pure numerical optimization exercises these days, and have lost that feel of discovery and sense of wonder. In general, I used to like genres like turn-based strategy or adventure that had no time constraints, but those now usually feel too slow-paced to pull me in; whereas pure action action games I've never been particularly good at. (I tried Shadow of Mordor for a bit recently, and quit after a very frustrating two hours where I attempted a simple beginning quest for about a dozen times, only to be killed by the same orc each time.)
Like the previous XCOM remake, Firaxis's XCOM2 managed the magic of transporting me completely elsewhere, in the same way that some of my childhood classics did. I did not even properly realize how deeply I'd become immersed the game, until I went outside, and the sheer differentness of the real world and the game world startled me - somewhat similar to the shock of jumping into cold water, your body suddenly and obviously piercing through a surface that separates two different realms of existence.
A good description of my experience with the game comes, oddly enough, from Michael Vassar describing something that's seemingly completely different. He talks about the way that two people, acting together, can achieve such a state of synchrony that they seem to meld into a single being:
> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. Under such circumstances, acting intuitively in real time, the question of whether an action is selfish or altruistic or both or neither never comes up, thus in such a flow state one never knows whether one is acting cooperatively, competitively, or predatorily. People with whom you are interacting [...] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]
XCOM2 is not actually a real-time game: it is firmly turn-based. Yet your turns are short and intense, and the game's overall aesthetics reinforce a feeling of rapid action and urgency. There is a sense in which it feels like the player and the game become melded together, there being a constant push-and-pull in which you act and the game responds; the game acts and you respond. A feeling of complete immersion and synchrony with your environment, with a perfect balance between the amount of time that it pays to think and the amount of time that it pays to act, so that the pace neither slows down to a crawl nor becomes one of rushed doing without understanding.
It is in some ways a scary effect: returning to the mundaneness of the real world, there was a strong sense of "it's so sad that all of my existence can't be spent playing games like that", and a corresponding realization of how dangerous that sentiment was. Yet it felt very different from the archetypical addiction: there wasn't that feel of a drug user's understanding of how ultimately dysfunctional the whole thing was, or struggling against something which you knew was harmful and of no real redeeming value. Rather, it felt like a taste of what human experience should be like, of how sublime and engaging our daily reality could be, but rarely is.
Jane McGonigal writes, in her book Reality is Broken:
> Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favorite games. [...]
> Reality, compared to games, is broken. [...]
> The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.
If enough good games were available, it would be easy to just get lost in games, to escape the brokeness of reality and retreat to a more perfect world. Perhaps I'm lucky in that I rarely encounter games of this caliber, that would be so much more moment-to-moment fulfilling than the real world is. Firaxis's previous XCOM also had a similar immersive effect on me, but eventually I learned the game and it ceased to hold new surprises, and it lost its hold. Eventually the sequel will also have most of its magic worn away.
It's likely better this way. This way it can function for me the way that art should: not as a mindless escape, but as a moment of beauty that reminds us that it's possible to have a better world than this. As a reminder that we can work to bring the world closer to that.
> What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists? [...]
> Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality [...] take everything game developers have learned about optimizing human experience and organizing collaborative communities and apply it to real life
We can do that.
Reality is broken, or, an XCOM2 review