Strange Loops - Blog Archive: August 2007
Strange Loops Journal Archive: August 2007

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The Ludic Paradigm: Productive Games
August 08, 2007
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People have to be paid to do many tasks, because they lack motivation to do them for free. The tasks are not enjoyable or rewarding, so they are work. We try to automate some work tasks (to increase efficiency), say by adding robots to factory lines, but technology has not solved the problem of work. Take a present-day technological example: consider the task of accurately labeling all the images in Google's image search. It would be a monumental task, not to mention a boring one. Computers cannot do it; they can only read the image file's name or metadata and use that as a keyword, but then you get too many random and inaccurate results. So if we want to accurately label all the images on Google, to make image searches more productive, we would have to spend a lot of money paying people to do the work. They would not want to do it on their own, right?

People will, of course, do the work - the mundane, boring, repetitive work - if there is money in it. After all, work tends to be seen as a necessary evil in our society (emphasis on necessary). It is something we do because it has to be done, or else we could not maintain our comfortable lifestyle. If everyone quit and went on some form of welfare, the system would collapse in on itself. So we have to work, right?

Well, in this Google Tech Talk video Luis von Ahn gives a fun presentation on how he found a way to change things. For the image labeling problem, instead of paying people to do this task, he designed an interface that made a game out of the task. He made it fun (apparently already 75,000 players, some logging over 20 hours a week, have created some 15+ million accurate image labels). In this case, the game also takes advantage of human competitive spirit (adding competitive features increases player speed, i.e. motivation). Games work well because we like challenging ourselves against others (in fact, primate research has shown that monkeys and apes may do better on some cognitive tasks when involved in a competitive rather than cooperative situation).

The competition aspect might initially cause someone to ask whether this is indeed just a demonstration of the power of a free market, and from there we are back to the traditional profit system of work. But the key here is not that competition always increases motivation, rather in this case personal competition (at an individual level, not the competition of corporate stocks) increases the fun of the task, which increases motivation. The key is the enjoyability of what the players are doing, and von Ahn took advantage of this by reshaping an otherwise boring task that you would have to pay something to do into something people volunteer to do.

If getting labels on a Google image search does not seem very impressive, think larger. Von Ahn cites 9 billion human-hours of Solitaire played in 2003. It took only 7 million human-hours to build the empire state building, 20 million the panama canal, both a mere drop in the bucket compared to time people spent on Solitaire. People will do repetitive things like playing Solitaire because it is a game and they find it enjoyable; they are not forced to do it, but do it of their own free-will. So if, with a little creative designing, we can tap into this vast store of potential human energy, we can accomplish huge things without coercing or paying anyone.

Von Ahn's work is a wonderful example of the ludic spirit, and how ludic innovation can restructure tasks we dislike into ones we like. The wider we apply this, the better our lives will be. It sure beats just going to work as it is, in order to pull in that paycheck that puts food on the table.

Elsewhere on this site, I've posted arguments against the paradigm that says work is a necessary evil (see Bob Black's Abolish Work, for example). I think it makes more sense to make our goal to reshape the things that we currently call work into something more akin to productive play. People who really, truly enjoy their jobs already have a hint at what this entails, though I suspect most of them are constrained by pay conditions to work longer or more rigidly than they would on their own (the coercion is still there, sapping some fulfillment out of it).

We can get so many necessary tasks done in ways that are less mundane, tiring and impersonal than currently, but to really alter the structure of our lives as a society would require some sweeping changes, changes which have a hard fight against the minimum-fulfillment-necessary strategy of a normal, profit-based or communist-based labor system.

That said, we can make significant changes in our own lives which make our time more enjoyable and less stressful. Aiming to break down the false dichotomy between work time and free time (i.e. time spent in front of a TV recovering from a long shift before sleeping and returning to work?), we can restructure our own tasks in order to make "work time" our own time again.

This can mean personalizing what we do, removing the disconnects between labor and the products/profits of labor, or it can just mean rethinking the job we are in and reordering priorities in order to find one that is a better fit (more flexible, more fulfilling, more fun). Pyramid marketing schemes that promise you can "be your own boss" are so successful not just because there are so many suckers out there, but because the desire to not be stuck doing what someone else wants and dictates (with no attachment to your work) is such a universal desire.

And the more we reshape our own lives in a ludic manner, the easier it will be to let those changes seep into the larger system, for innovators, inventors and intelligent minds to reimagine our current tasks as ones we can do for fun, and for personal, direct reward (fulfillment) rather than impersonal, indirect reward (a paycheck).

Bonobos: Peaceful Sex-Mongers or Just Another Ape?
August 06, 2007
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I've previously written about bonobos. They are highly fascinating apes that have only been recognized as a species since 1933. They are becoming well-known nowadays for their pan-sexual promiscuity and peaceful reputation, making them an easy cause to rally around, since they're also seriously endangered.

Additionally, they are thought to be extremely intelligent. One of the most famous of the handful of language-trained apes is a bonobo, Kanzi, who as a youth picked up a lexigram system without any formal training, just by observing the experimenters' failed attempts to train his mother. My own research has involved collaborating with the facility where Kanzi began (as well as a number of language-trained chimps), and his reputation has brought a lot of acclaim on a species that is otherwise easily missed. Before being recognized as a distinct species, for quite a while bonobos were mistaken for chimpanzees. Today their numbers are dwindling dangerously low, since their one and only habitat is in the middle of an African civil war zone (the Congo); it's no wonder that few researchers have even seen wild bonobos, and that much of the research we know comes from captive studies.

Last week the New Yorker ran a piece on bonobos, entitled Swingers. It's a very entertaining and generally informative read, but of significant length. It follows the field study hijinks of Gottfrief Hohmann, work which actually turns out to be pretty monotonous. In the three weeks the reporter joined him in the field, they only saw bonobos twice, and for a brief time. Field studies with these creatures take years of dedicated work in a harsh environment for very little payoff. But in the end such work is necessary to really understand these creatures.

Hohmann aims to debunk some of the more exaggerated claims about bonobo behavior: that they live a tranquil life of free-love, for example. In fact, bonobos hunt in the wild (including smaller monkeys). They fight - though perhaps less frequently than chimps (who have been reported to hold extended war-like conflicts between groups). In the wild, they do not seem to engage in sex as ubiquitously as previously assumed.

A lot of what we know about bonobos comes from studying captives: it's just been too hard to get to the bonobo habitat, and takes so long to gather significant information about them (their habitat and/or demeanor makes them harder to track than chimps). Heavily published researchers like Frans de Waal have shaped the public impression of these creatures - and de Waal has himself never seen a wild bonobo (though do not make the mistake of discounting his vast experience with bonobos and other primates; he knows his stuff). So our view of them has been biased by the differences that necessarily come out in a species housed in a human-constructed environment.

Thus Hohmann's skepticism about bonobo peace and love is refreshing - we should always be on guard against too easily accepting what we want to hear, and humans no doubt want to hear their close evolutionary ancestor manages a peaceful existence (giving us, perhaps, a similar hope). However, it sounds like other researchers in the area - including field researchers with bonobos - have some issues with how Hohmann does his work, so it may just turn out the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The research on sexual behavior is particularly controversial. Bonobos have been seen to engage in all sorts of sexual acts in all sorts of pairs: male-female, male-male, female-female, involving young and old alike, oral and genital and manual contact, and have even used toys sexually in captivity. They are known to diffuse tension, avoid conflict and repair relations by initiating sex. They open-mouth kiss, and have face-to-face sex. All in all, a very human-like species, sexually.

But remember, a lot of this comes from captive studies. The New Yorker article cites a contrary finding by Craig Stanford: female bonobos don't actually mate more frequently or less cyclically than chimps, and in the wild male chimps copulate more often than male bonobos. So maybe the captive studies mislead us?

However, Stanford's findings only looked at heterosexual sex. They completely ignored sexual behavior between those of the same sex. A field researcher like Hohmann may want us to believe that wild bonobos are much less sexual the captives we've previously observed from, but he also wants us to believe that extended genital-genital rubbing between two females is a completely non-sexual activity.

That just stretches my credulity. That is almost like saying of humans that intercourse with birth control is not sexual behavior because it cannot lead to a baby. (Others have had similar comments.) This demonstrates where there is another hidden issue behind the (admittedly important) captive-wild distinction: researchers come at this from their own preconceived background philosophy and frame their research questions (and data) under these schema in ways that can manipulate our impression of the reality when we just read the results.

Certainly it is likely that bonobos will turn out more mundane and mixed than the idyllic representation they initially received. But at the same time, we must take care not to ignore their genuine species differences (especially when many of those things do still show up in the wild), even if that means some researchers must reexamine their ideas of what it means for animals to have sex.

Meanwhile, we need to keep the bonobos alive long enough for field studies to actually learn about their wild behavior before it is too late and their mysteries are lost to us forever.

A Glimpse at the American Electorate
August 01, 2007
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Yikes. According to this Newsweek Poll, 41% of American still think Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the September 11, 2001 attack. Less than half know that almost all of the plane hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. A fifth of Americans think they came from Iraq; but then, that same proportion of Americans believes we have found chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. And of course less than half of Americans have any idea how recent Iraq's status as an independent nation is; half were unsure or wrong about what countries border Iraq.

For that matter, only one in ten Americans know the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Less than a third recognize the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Three-fifths know the current Speaker of the House, which is the same proportion that recognize Putin as Russia's president. But then, 38% think only five countries in the world have nukes (in fact, there are nine: U.S., Russia, Israel, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea).

What might be worse than the ignorance about current affairs is some of the gaping holes in basic historical knowledge. Only 61% knew that the Roman Empire was around before the Ottoman, British or American ones. While I'm not sure America is a full-fledged 'empire' yet, apparently about 1 in 20 people think it was an empire before the Romans, Ottomans or Brits were out conquering foreign lands. Even worse, only half of Americans (53%) realized that Judaism predates Christianity and Islam (two-fifths of the population think one of those came first!). Considering that most of the U.S. is Christian, you would think they would know enough about their religion to realize where the 'Old Testament' came from and that the Jesus of the Bible was a Jew. This stuff is pretty basic, large-scale history and doesn't require remembering specific dates.

For that matter, it seems science isn't a strong suit. About four-fifths of Americans can't rule out "greater output from the sun" as a factor in global warming. They find it more plausible that the billions-year-old sun is throwing off more energy lately than they find it plausible that rice paddies could be a factor.

What do Americans know about? Well, more than half (55%) know the approximate price of a barrel of oil in today's world market (~$70 as of poll time). A third know about where the Dow Jones is at (13,000 at the time). I suppose this suggests that personal economic matters (gas prices and retirement/stocks) take priority over basic current events, history and science knowledge. (Not that this is a very comprehensive or representative knowledge survey, mind you).

There is a mere glimmer of good news: at least half of respondents (54%) know that that brain can adapt and produce new neurons throughout most of life (though not sure if they are right that neurogenesis or significant changes stop around 65 years). And more than half of Americans (64%) realize the Amazon River is in South America, so that's something. Overall, though, it is yet another poll that just does not inspire confidence in the U.S. electorate.