Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Evolved instincts, hyperstimulation and memes

As social websites become more popular, a growing concern amongst many users is the prevalence of internet memes. Memes can be fun and amusing, and can help foster a sense of community that might otherwise be absent. However, as a community grows larger memes (in the colloquial sense, of imagemacros, in-jokes and subcultural references) can often start to take over the community, slowly crowding out or banishing to the margins more intelligent, educational or thought-provoking content.

Part of the problem is the fact that internet memes often form part of the "lowest common denominator" for the community - while not everyone appreciates a multi-page article on economics or a paper on game theory, almost everyone at least quirks their lips or smiles at even a half-competently executed meme or in-joke that they recognise.

The question is, why are internet memes frequently the lowest common denominator? What is it about them that people appreciate so much, even to the inadvertent exclusion of other content?
I've been thinking about this for some time, and my conclusion is that it's our tribal instincts - just like an attraction to sweet foods and a desire for sex, we have a pronounced and built-in monkey-belong-tribe-feel-good instinct (PDF warning).

This is great and valuable, however like our attraction to sweet things, it's an evolutionarily-beneficial impulse that can run out of control when it's hyper-stimulated.

An evolutionary analogy

We like sweet foods because our ancestors were frequently on the verge of malnourishment or vitamin-deficiency, and the high-energy natural sugars and vitamins in fruit were a great boost for our survival chances. Moreover they were only intermittently available (when various fruits were in season), so it made sense for our instincts to prioritise acquiring these sources of food as we were usually deficient in them and never really had the opportunity to over-indulge to a detrimental degree.

This was fine for millions of years, but then we got smart and learned how to make doughnuts and cream cakes and chocolate bars. We learned how to spin and weave complex sugars and flavour enhancers, so we could make snacks and treats that were even more sugary and sickly-sweet than anything found in nature. We learned to hyperstimulate our natural response to sugar, but while we have a natural evolved defence against not enough sugar ("naturally liking the taste of sweet things"), because there was never a need for it we have no evolved defence against having too much.

The trouble is that our evolved instincts were only concerned with getting as much (rare) natural sugar as they could - they simply aren't evolved do deal with a world where a single dessert on its own can provide half your RDA of calories, so we tend to over-indulge our evolved instincts and binge on sugary and unhealthy foods... leading to an ever-growing increase in obesity, ill-health and the like.

Worse, by hyperstimulating our sense of taste with artificial/refined (and vitamin-free) sugars, we even lose our taste for the beneficial fruit that the instinct was originally evolved to make us eat - fruit tastes bland and boring to many kids raised on fizzy drinks, artificial chocolate and monosodium glutamate, so they reach for junk food in preference.

Similarly, we have an evolved monkey-belong-tribe-feel-good instinct.  This makes perfect sense because with things like kin-selection, mate-availability, altruism, wild animal predation and disease there was undoubtedly a strong evolutionary advantage to being part of a tribe, but the upshot is that we get worried by social ostracism and get a pleasing jolt of reward chemicals in the brain whenever we feel like we belong to a tribe.

This was manifested in many ways - back in the day you used to get literal tribes and inter-village vendettas.  Then as we became more civilised and larger towns developed they exceeded our Dunbar number and instead we began to identify and form tribes along other lines - for example they way people tend to incorporate their church or sports team into their identity (so they're no longer just "Bob Smith" - they're "Bob Smith, Episcopalian Baptist and New York Yankees supporter").

Later on, with mass-media and an ever more intermixed society we needed to find ever quicker, more ad-hoc ways of forming social bonds, so we also began using catchphrases and punchlines from TV and other media as a quick way to establish rapport and form ad-hoc mini-tribes with each other based around a common interest or shared context (a shared TV show or genre of music or other form of entertainment).

Finally, with the internet and social networking we have almost no default shared context - something I post on reddit as a 30-odd year-old straight white guy in Town X in the UK can be answered just as easily by a 17 year-old gay Indian woman in China as it can by someone else in my home-town.

Moreover, due to sensible privacy concerns the persistence and depth of identity is limited - no-one on sites like reddit know any more about you than you choose to post on the internet, so we resort to memes to bridge the gap, establish shared context, and establish tribes based around meme-recognition, and which website(s) and communities we visit.

This is great, but just like the sugar example, with social networks and the effectively free creation, availability and dissemination of memes we've learned to hyperstimulate those group-bonding instincts.

With memes you can always feel like part of a tribe simply by clicking a button, and as a result people do it to excess.  They post irrelevant personal stories to social news sites that 99.99999% of the community have no real interest in, because when people upvote them and comment on these stories they feel like they belong.  Likewise, people upvote then and comment on the stories because it makes them feel like they're part of a tribe.  They've never met the person concerned, they have no relationship to them, and wouldn't even recognise their username ten minutes later, but - just briefly - they feel they have a connection, and get the jolt of social reward stimulus in their brain.

People post memes incessantly for the same reason - it's the equivalent of someone with no sense of nutrition or dietary self-control compulsively binging on junk food and sugary snacks.  We've learned to hyperstimulate our instincts, but we haven't yet learned the maturity and self-control necessary to do it in moderation.

We're getting there (slowly) with sugar - we've known the basic facts of nutrition for decades, and obesity is an obvious, hard-to-ignore downside, though there are still an astonishing number of people who simply can't or won't moderate themselves and their intake.

However, as online societies or communities we're a long way from even really grasping the problem with the monkey-belong-tribe-feel-good instinct.  Unlike "nutrition" there's no systematic, field of study that really even empirically demonstrates the problems with overstimulating it, and "the intelligence, thoughtfulness and educational quality of content in a community slowly descending into nothing but monkey-hooting and back-slapping" is much harder to point out and demonstrate unambiguously to people who don't already understand the problem than "morbid obesity" is.

Allied to that is the problem that at least morbidly obese people often recognise that they're unhealthy and unattractive, which at least provides some impetus to change their lifestyle.  All too often people who incessantly post memes to every comment thread and derail every conversation into circle-jerking often love the content they're posting, and are hurt and surprised and dismissive of people who try to convince them to moderate their input somewhat.  Like any addict, it's hard to even see (let alone acknowledge) the problem until you hit rock-bottom.

So... there we areWe've suddenly stumbled on a way to hyperstimulate our monkey-belong-tribe-feel-good instincts to the point we can feel validated and like part of a tribe simply by clicking a button, and like the proverbial lab-rat given the opportunity to self-administer drugs by pressing a lever, once made aware of the opportunity a large section of the population has trouble doing anything but hammering on it just as hard and as fast as they can.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Why did Google release Ingress?

Google recently announced a move into a market that's confused many people - an Alternate Reality Game called Ingress.

It's hardly an obvious move - Google is a Big Data, search and advertising company, not a games manufacturer.  They provide services with mass-appeal that users typically use every day or so, like e-mail (GMail), search (Google search), social networking (Google+), blogging (Blogger) and others, but from the perspective of Google as a business these are - fundamentally - all merely ways to deliver paid advertising to consumers.

An Alternate Reality Game is none of these things - it doesn't have mass appeal (most people still don't fully understand what an ARG even is, let alone play one) and even dedicated ARG players spend most of their lives and leisure time not playing their chosen game.  It lacks mass-appeal, even dedicated players may not use the service from one day to the next, and there's no clear, obviously way to insert advertising into the game in any particularly lucrative way.

So why release it? 

What Google are good at 

As stated above, Google are a Big Data company - they excel at managing, querying and manipulating huge datasets, and at making simple interfaces to this data available to the public.

However, they also excel at another related skill - getting other people to generate the data for them in the first place.

Remember the free automated directory enquiries service that everyone wondered why Google would launch several years ago?  Much confusion was provoked by the choice - "why would they do that?  What's the benefit?  Where's the business model?", people asked.  It seemed mystifying at the time, but Google were cleverly using the service to quickly and effectively build a vast corpus of spoken word queries in a variety of accents, to train the voice-recognition systems that subsequently made it into Google Voice and Android.... and then as soon as it was built, they shut down GOOG-411.

It's worth pausing at this point to reflect on the genius of this move - most commenters were focusing on the (not-inconsiderable) expense of setting up an automated directory-enquiries service.  However Google was playing a much larger game, wherein this cost was trivial compared to the value of building a world-class database of voice-samples to train voice recognition software.  Not only did they gain a vast corpus of sound-samples, but by setting up an interactive service where users were strongly motivated to correct any misinterpretations (in order to obtain accurate results), they also ensured that they had the correct interpretation of each sound sample - neatly removing almost all of the effort from not only collecting but also categorising/interpreting the learning dataset.

The value of this dataset really can't be over-estimated - Google were already capable of indexing and querying all the digitised text data in the world, but they were completely incapable when it came to audio data - spoken-word, recorded audio, video soundtracks and the like.

By developing an acceptable voice-to-text system they made whole rafts of new application and services possible - automatically generated e-mail transcripts of voicemail messages left via Google Voice, auto-transcripts of video media (allowing both closed-caption subtitles and the possibility of text-searching within video media the way it's already possible to search within textual media), permitting reliable voice search and voice control of software and hardware, and many others.

Or for another example, consider ReCAPTCHA (initially created by an independent company, but quickly snapped up by Google), where their free CAPTCHA service also helped them to automatically resolve edge-cases and unrecognised words when production-line digitising books for Google Books (thereby turning analogue, offline text into digitised, searchable text).

Google Image Labeller was another - a small, fun game Google launched that got users to collaboratively tag images, which in turn hugely improved Google's image-search system's accuracy and specificity.

So how does this relate to Ingress?

At a guess, it's about getting Google good data for footpath routes to compete with Nokia's recently announced turn-by-turn navigation for pedestrians.Google maps/navigation are great for driving directions, but pretty terrible for walking - they typically just tell you to follow the nearest road, which can lead you on annoyingly roundabout, unattractive or even unnecessarily dangerous routes in many areas.

Many hints about the new game are dropped in this All Things D article.  Note how Ingress is specifically geared around pedestrians:
Users can generate virtual energy needed to play the game by... travelling walking paths, like a real-world version of Pac-Man. Then they spend the energy going on missions around the world to “portals,” which are virtually associated with public art, libraries and other widely accessible places... Outdoor physical activity is a big component of this, though driving between locations isn’t banned
I.e., it's very, very much about walking places... while carrying a GPS-enabled mobile device with a camera and accelerometer and wi-fi and mobile data connection built into it... while running their app that can report whatever it wants back to their servers and has to for you to be able to play the game (i.e., no privacy concerns, as would be the case if they started aggressively tracking and recording the movement of every mobile Google Maps user).

Players walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps currently doesn't cover well, and then as a reward they get to... walk around art installations, libraries and other large, pedestrian-only public areas that Google Streetview cars can't get to.  All the time the game client is reporting back to Google their position, speed and the like, so Google gets to build a massive database of popular pedestrian-accessible areas and common routes between and around them.  It's genius.

Based on this I also predicted that Google Ingress would also encourage users to take geotagged photos of these various locations in the game as mission objectives.  After all, if you've just managed to convince thousands or millions of people to build you a massive GPS-tagged pedestrian-accessible location and route database essentially for free, you'd have to be pretty stupid not to also get them to take geotagged photos and similar media for you while they do it.

I also argued that the game probably records wi-fi SSIDs and a whole bunch of other useful datapoints, too... both proven correct with further investigation in this reddit thread.

Google are very good at manipulating vast datasets, and if anything they're even better at finding inventive and mutually-beneficial ways to convince large numbers of people to voluntarily build those datasets for them.

In short, whatever the plot of Ingress is about, the point of it is to quickly and cheaply build an unrivalled corpus of pedestrian-accessible routes, locations and journey-times for the next generation of foot-enabled Google Maps and Navigation apps, or I'll eat my hat.


This idea seems to have gained some traction since I first advanced it on reddit - within a day or two it was all over the social web, suspiciously similar ideas (usually with exactly the same examples) popped up without attribution on half-a-dozen SEO and spammy unattributed-aggregation blogs, passing reference was made to the idea in a FastCompany article about Niantic Labs, and it was even featured (and cited!) on Forbes' technology blog.

Friday, 18 March 2011

We are living in the future: A rant

Fairly frequently listening to people talk or post in online discussions, you run across an attitude you could sum up as

Come on! It's 2000-and-whatever and we don't even have flying cars/hoverboards/whatever yet!

In response, a rant. Profanity is for emphatic purposes only - I assure you the tone of this piece is "cheerfully outraged".

Seriously? Seriously? Are you fucking shitting me?

I'm carrying in my pocket a device smaller than my hand which can record audio, video and static images in high quality, and share them with anyone else in the world. It allows me to speak to people on the other side of the planet instantaneously, receives messages from space that prevent me ever getting lost, anywhere, and can reliably guide me to places I haven't even been before (even showing me a picture of the building, so I know what I'm looking for).

It provides wireless, practically-instantaneous access to the sum total of knowledge we have as a species (as well as all the LOLcats and boobies I could ever want to see), allows me to remotely control computers and devices around me, and can provide an "alternate reality" layer allowing me to peer into any one of hundreds of geographically-relevant virtual worlds that underlies the real one, so I can find businesses, read reviews or find invisible notes people have left attached to locations in the real world.

I can play games on it - in fact, I can emulate entire games systems from my youth at full speed, in software, on a device smaller than one of the controllers of the original console system.

And that's just my fucking phone, right now, today.

Leaving aside mobile computing, and the web, and computers that for $500 can read your fucking mind, looking forward you've got massive advances in genetics, the entire field of proteomics just opening up, private spaceflight (including affordable holidays in space reasonably projected within my lifetime), and that's not to mention practical holography, industrial and consumer nanotech and neuroprosthetics allowing you to extend or augment your own body, mind or consciousness in hitherto-unimagined ways.

Your problem is not that the exciting things still haven't arrived yet - it's that you're so neck fucking deep in exciting things that you've become jaded and stopped even noticing them. We live - to quote Paul Simon - in an age of miracles and wonders, but you're so used to them that they've stopped impressing you.

People like you bitch about the lack of flying cars, blind to the fact that we already have them, but most people are far too stupid, incompetent and distractable to drive safely in two dimensions, on the ground, where there's no risk of a collision causing even survivors to drop hundreds of metres out of the sky and pancake themselves on whatever's beneath them.

You complain about hover-boards, but miss the fact that we live in a society with unprecedented access to information and communication, where anyone can teach themselves practically anything to a high level for free on the internet, this increased access to information and unfettered, geographically-omnipresent, low-barrier-to-entry many:many communication means we're slap-bang in the middle of the biggest social revolution since the fucking printing press (possibly since language), and the public discourse is extending itself outwards and refining itself inwards as we gradually - and for the first time ever - begin to form a truly global consciousness and discourse. Cognition at the whole-species level, if you will.

And people like you bitch about the lack of a floating fucking plank? O_o

We are alive at the single most exciting time in the entire history of the world - not only is technology progressing faster than ever before in human history, but it's also taking less and less time before it's commoditised and even the relatively poor start to feel the benefits.

Put simply, we are living in the future.

How can you possibly be so bored of it already? ಠ_ಠ

Friday, 4 March 2011

Post-conventional wisdom

I've long believed that one of the most important aspects of rationality is learning to be skeptical even of your own rationality. Just like unquestioning faith in a creator or social movement is naive and usually incorrect, so is unquestioning faith in yourself and your own memories.

Most of us instinctively think of ourselves as rational, logical people. We believe that our thinking processes, assumptions and even automatic reactions are justified, proportionate and correct.

This is, to put it bluntly, wrong.

Over the last few decades cognitive science has demonstrated repeatedly that our "natural" way of thinking is actually little more than a collection of useful evolved heuristics, not a rational, logically-defensible framework. They've even collected a huge array of known cognitive bugs. We're all guilty of most of these biases much of the time, and even those of us who know about them and try aggressively to avoid them still fall prey to them upon occasion, often without even realising.

What it comes down to, broadly, is that you are not a reliable narrator, even of your own experiences, opinions and life-history. You are just as prone to biases, subconscious (and sometimes not-so subconscious) whitewashing and a whole suite of cognitive errors and biases as anyone else. Don't just gloss over that - let it sink in for a moment. Much of what you "remember" is invented detail. Many of the life-experiences that make up your sense of self and your identity are exaggerated, grossly biased or even wholly fallacious.

This is a revelation for some people, and for others (too attached to their mental image of themselves as perfect, incorruptible and in control of themselves) it's deeply troubling and offensive.

Really accepting this fact (rather than paying lip-service to it and then continuing to act as if it's not true) is deeply humbling and restrictive. You can't just get angry when you're feeling irritable, because you might not have the right. You can't automatically call others idiots and dismiss their opinions, because you might simply be missing their point. You can't even pride yourself unduly on achievements in the past, because much of what you remember is likely to be (even slightly) self-aggrandising or a distorted account.

This is obviously difficult for many to accept - it feels humbling, and restrictive to personal liberty. However, it probably feels restrictive for a five year-old child to be told not to run out into traffic and to instead learn the Highway Code.

Let there be no doubt; it is restrictive. It's also a part of growing up and taking responsibility for yourself.

There are distinct benefits, however. Aside from helping you become a more reasonable person (always a worthwhile goal), what it does do is give you the opportunity to learn to "step outside" yourself. When you always keep in mind the fact that you might be wrong, it helps you avoid being caught up in events, and allows you to rationally consider not only situations but also your own reactions to those situations in a more calm, considered, objective manner. Instead of merely reacting like a mindless emotional automaton, it allows you to analyse and probe your own emotions, and decide, consciously and rationally whether to pay heed to an emotional impulse or to disregard it as undesirable.

I honestly believe a real, conscious acceptance of one's own fallibility (even in areas we normally automatically assume we're infallible) - and (paradoxically) the opportunity for enhanced self-control that it presents - represents a distinct "level" of cognition (in terms of self-awareness, rationalism, "enlightenment" and the like) that many or even most people simply never advance to. Hell, I know I make a conscious effort to bear this in mind, and I frequently fall far short of the ideal. Nevertheless, I think the goal is a worthy one.

You can think of the two mind-frames as being exemplified by the following scenario:

If you wake up one morning and hear The Voice Of God, where do you go first? The church, or the psychiatric unit of your local hospital? Many (perhaps most) would instinctively believe in the veracity of their subjective experience and would believe God was talking to them personally. That this is an irrational conclusion is pretty easy to demonstrate, given the relative paucity of sanctified religious prophets compared to the enormous (and rising) incidence of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

If on the other hand you'd immediately to to your doctor and ask for a psychiatric evaluation, congratulations - that's exactly the kind of skepticism I'm talking about.

Postscript; a name for this type of skepticism (the title of this post) was coined by a helpful redditor, by analogy to Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. I would never presume to describe it so grandly myself, but I think the analogy is a good one.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

On the "rape = power" meme

I'm going to tackle a very sensitive subject here. It's one of society's greatest taboos, but it's also centred around an almost omnipresent and enduring misconception, most likely largely because it's such a taboo that's hard to discuss calmly and rationally.

Given this state of affairs, please consider first reading this before continuing, and - for anyone who's experienced rape or indecent assault - be aware that the following discussion may include triggers.

First, a caveat

There's an almost-omnipresent meme in society today, that rape is entirely or primarily about power. It's one of those incredibly hardy, robust memes that are simultaneously difficult to argue against without leaving yourself open to accusations of apologism, or excusing the inexcusable (see also: civil rights for captured terrorists, differentiating between child molesters and paedophiles, etc), which likely accounts in no small measure for its widespread success.

With that in mind, nothing in this post should be taken to excuse, diminish, apologise for or trivialise rape or rapists. Rape is a hideous, inexcusable phenomenon, and should rightly be viewed as such. However, that doesn't excuse inaccuracies or inconsistencies in its characterisation or people's beliefs, and pointing them out does not diminish its evil in any way. Moreover, with a more accurate understanding of the problem one can almost always fight it better.

In summary: one can still believe Hitler was a monster without having to believe he also had horns and a tail. Moreover, WWII would have gone significantly more poorly for the allies if we fell into this trap and allowed ourselves to believe the Nazis could be beaten with a Bibles, silver and holy water.

That said (and hopefully any offended sensibilities or jerking knees pre-emptively defused), on with the discussion...

Problems with the "rape=power" meme

The primary problem with the "rape = power" meme is that as far as I can tell it is completely and utterly unsupported.

That sounds incredible - at first - given its prevalence, but I've researched this quite heavily, and I am literally unable to come up with a single evidence-based source for the claim. Literally the closest I've been able to find for a source for this claim was a 1974 documentary about violence against women, wherein a group of prisoners who formed an organisation named "Men Against Rape" in Lorton Prison were interviewed regarding attitudes to rape[1].

In this documentary the prisoners claimed (apparently without evidential support) that male-male rape in prisons was primarily a power relationship, and then baselessly hypothesised that the same might hold true for all rapes, outside of the kind of violent, criminal, uncivilised, exclusively-male, strongly hierarchical, macho culture that characterises prison life.

Aside from the highly speculative and unsupported basis of this claim, it's also worth knowing that of this group, only one of their number was even a convicted rapist.

Got that? We have a bunch of unqualified prisoners, only one of whom is even part of the group they're hypothesising about, suggesting that rape in their particular prison is primarily a power issue, and generalising from that not only to "all prisons", but to all rapes. Hmmm.

Moreover, despite the fact the claims were speculative, unsupported, advanced by completely unqualified individuals and of dubious applicability to life outside prison, they were picked up and quickly became society's default assumption as to the nature of rape. An assertion with which, moreover, even the makers of the documentary seem to have something of an issue (read the last post on that page).

In addition to a fundamental lack of supporting evidence, there are also several empirical factors that appear to counter-indicate the idea that rape is primarily or entirely a power relationship, and has nothing to do with "normal" sexual attraction:

To begin with - even controlling for extraneous factors like socialising patterns, socio-economic level and the like - rape victimisation is hugely more common amongst younger people than older[2]. Were it simply a power relationship one would expect no significant difference between ages, or even (outside childhood, wherein child abuse is a related but distinct phenomenon) an increased likelihood with age, as ill-health, infirmity, mobility problems and/or dependency on others all increased, and the individual generally presented an easier, more tempting target.

There are also several scientific studies demonstrating that as access to pornography goes up, rape goes down. It's hard to imagine how rape can be primarily about power and not about satisfying sexual urges, when improving individuals' ability to satisfy sexual urges leads to a measurable reduction in rape (and, note, in no other type of violent crime).

In addition to this, there are plenty of documented instances of forced or otherwise coercive sex in the animal kingdom. I'm somewhat leery of evolutionary-psychology due to its inherent non-falsifiability, but when you have a behaviour - that's commonly asserted to be about a conscious lust for power - being demonstrated as a successful reproductive strategy even by non-conscious animals, I think we have to acknowledge that - distasteful though the activity may be - there's at least some chance that it's simply an evolved reproductive strategy (ie, an instinctive satisfaction of sexual/reproductive urges) rather than purely a psychosocial dominance issue or power-play.

Finally, the word "rape" covers a multitude of sins. Statutory rape is rape. Date-rape is rape. Even drunk mutually-consensual sex can be considered rape if one partner later decides they regret it[3].

Violent, sober, non-consensual sex is a horrifying phenomenon, but in our society "rape" is not always necessarily the same thing as "violent, sober, non-consensual sex". In particular it seems... problematic to reasonably argue that an overly-insistent drunken hookup, a 17 year-old sleeping with a 15 year-old that they're in a long-term relationship with and a violent alleyway sexual assault at knifepoint are all committed by offenders with exactly the same psychological type, with exactly the same motivation.

Upon reflection, it's not so surprising that there's no hard evidence supporting this assertion - dealing, as it does, with intangible and subjective psychological motivations that you can't empirically test. The question is, then, given all the evidence against it and the paucity of evidence in favour of it, how did we as a society ever get so convinced of it?

So why is it so enduring?

From here on in I'm hypothesising rather than reporting documented history or scientific conclusions, but I suspect it's because such a view of rape demonises and de-humanises rapists, so it's more appealing to many members of both sexes.

To many "old fashioned" feminists or people strongly interested in women's issues it suggests by association that all men are at least potentially insatiable power-hungry oppressors with unnatural, destructive motivations, and it casts the penis as the weapon of the oppressor. Modern (third-wave) feminism has right moved away from this kind of misandrist rhetoric, but it was a lot more common in the past, and flattering this kind of world-view would certainly account for why the meme became so popular when it did, especially given feminism (as an institution) has been primarily responsible for pushing the issue of rape into the public eye (and rightly so).

Equally, to many men (even ones uninterested in women's issues) it allows us to characterise rapists as some violent, power-obsessed "other". We've all been horny and drunk or otherwise impaired, but we've never raped anyone. If plenty of rapists are just guys with normal sexual urges and a little less self-control than us it's deeply unnerving, as it suggests that - in the right situation - we could potentially do something like that. Casting rapists instead as power-mad abusers with no normal human motivations is therefore more comforting to us, as it's a rigid separation stopping "us" from ever becoming one of "them".

It's the same idiotic cartoon-o-vision mentality that says paedophiles (people with a sexual orientation who have no choice over how they feel) are all uncontrollable child molesters (people who choose to give into their urges and perform an action), or that terrorists like Osama bin Laden are all necessarily two-dimensional, moustache-twirling megalomaniacs who sacrifice their lives in attacking western countries simply because they hate every single individual in the country because of their "freedom"... rather than people who are legitimately angry about the effects of western countries' foreign policy on their regions and their families/friends, and who - lacking any conventional ability to effect change - instead out of desperation choose tactics which we find morally abhorrent.

In short, we overwhelmingly and unthinkingly believe this as a society not because it's empirically proven, or supported by evidence, or even particularly plausible. We apparently believe it purely and simply because it flatters our preconceptions and makes us feel better about ourselves... and that's no reason to believe anything.

So now we've cleared that up, while we continue condemning rapists and rape, can we finally put this tired, baseless, inaccurate, misleading, counter-productive meme to bed?


[1] Given the hot-button nature of the subject, lest anyone be inclined to jump to assumptions regarding a pro-rape or "mens-rights" agenda on the part of the linked blog article, bear in mind that it's written by a blogger dedicated to sex-positive feminism.

[2] This paper separated adult rape victims into seven age-bands (18 to 24 years, 25 to 29 years, 30 to 34 years, 35 to 44 years, 45 to 54 years, 55 to 59 years and 60 years and over). After controlling for all other factors, the analysis indicated that each successive band has only around a 70% of the risk of the previous band of experiencing rape. In other words, compared to an 18-24 year-old, a 45-54 year-old is only 24% as likely to be raped.

Similarly, this paper reports that outside of the ages 12-15 (which include child abuse - a related but distinct problem to adult rape), you are at most risk between the ages of 20-34 (0.9/100,000 people), then 16-19 (0.6), then 35-49, then 50-64, and last of all 65 or older. Aside from the (already-mentioned) child-abuse outlier, this clearly shows a correlation between the ages when people are commonly considered most attractive, and next to nothing about vulnerability or opportunity for dominance.

[3] There is , it must be acknowledged, also an egregious gender-imbalance in this particular case, but that's a whole other discussion, equally inflammatory and controversial in its own right.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

An attempt at a simple, two-rule morality

I've been thinking about morality recently. Plenty of people claim to offer moral systems, but as a modern, relatively enlightened individual most of them seem to include relatively arbitrary injunctions, and as a geek most of them seem both over-complicated and over-specified, and yet still riddled with unhandled edge-cases.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example:

  1. I am the Lord your God
  2. You shall have no other gods before me/You shall not make for yourself an idol
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
  5. Honor your father and mother
  6. You shall not murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife/You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour

As a modern weak atheist there seem to be some obvious errors or redundancies there:

  • The first two injunctions presuppose a belief in supernatural entity, so as someone who finds no rational reason to believe in a supernatural entity, these seem suspect or redundant. Firstly they could be better summarised as "Do not believe in any gods other than me". Secondly, unless God can himself demonstrate his moral authority (instead of, as most religions do, simply assuming it) they seem more concerned with promoting and propagating one religion than with laying down universal moral rules to live by.
  • The latter half of the Second Commandment seems to contradict the First Commandment and the first half of the Second. As a non-Christian, I would define an idol as an entity which is worshipped blindly and absolutely. This definitely includes the Christian God. Alternatively, one can take the assumed definition in context as "anything other than the Christian God"; but then (as above) it amounts to an empty re-iteration of the first commandment-and-a-half, which themselves rely on the undemonstrated assumption that the Christian God is an absolute moral authority.
  • The third again seems unnecessary - why should a system of morality define it as immoral to take the name of its creator in vain? A system of morality should stand up on its own to reasonable argument, and defining veneration of its creator as a moral requirement frankly sounds far too much like begging the question.
  • The fourth is simply redundant - why should a moral system concern itself with keeping a day of the week specifically marked out? Admittedly there may be some social benefits to setting aside a whole day of the week for adherents to remember and reflect upon their moral choices, but I don't see why such an injunction is morally good, rather than simply a good idea.
  • The fifth is again a good idea, but too over-simplified and prone to edge-cases. Sure honouring your parents is good for social stability, but what if your father is a deadbeat dad and your mother a shiftless crackhead? This commandment smacks entirely too much of the kind of unconditional, assumed authority that typifies the Ten Commandments, and is far too incomplete to serve as a good rule. Moreover, why should parents get special treatment? Why not simply honour anyone who is wiser, more intelligent or more experienced than you?
  • The sixth through ninth are pretty good, prohibiting murder, adultery, theft and lying. However, you have to be careful with definitions - for example, distinguishing between "murder" and "killing", which may include self-defence or defence of a third party). Moreover, I can't help wonder if these are overly specific, leaving out whole classes of immoral behaviour not explicitly prohibited. Take "dropping litter in public", for example - most of us would agree that it's a comparatively moral issue, and yet it's not covered by these four injunctions.
  • Leaving aside the implication that a wife is a possession to be owned, the tenth is again pretty good - I've always understood this as an injunction to try not to feel jealousy (because it's frequently a sterile, unproductive emotion), but rather to concentrate on bettering your own life and resist the temptation to waste it wishing you had someone else's.

Clearly, then, there's a lot of fat that could be cut, and a lot of edge-cases to handle.

Instead, I present my best stab at a moral system. It's only two injunctions:

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, at the highest level of abstraction possible.
  2. Always seek to minimise harm in the long run.

There are a couple of subtle but key points here.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a pretty good moral system on its own, but the addition of "at the highest level of abstraction possible" removes edge-cases and makes it a lot more specific and defensible.

For example, it would now prohibit a masochist excusing undesired violence against others on the basis that he liked to receive violence himself. Rather, he is now constrained to consider their wishes when deciding whether it's acceptable to hurt others, rather than simply the shallow fact of his actions.

The second injunction is a somewhat Utilitarian attempt to minimise the total amount of harm in the world (where we define harm in the usual way, as "physical or mental damage").

This prohibits short-termism in decision-making (which often merely saves up problems or harm for later, possibly even increasing the total amount of harm).

It also allows for harm to be caused where necessary, but only where such harm is in the service of preventing greater harm - this would permit otherwise difficult moral choices, such as the hypothetical "killing a single child to prevent a nuclear weapon going off in a major city".

More trivially, it also permits things like "contradicting someone you believe is incorrect", but when considered in conjunction with the first, only if you're happy being contradicted or corrected by others in turn. It also effectively prohibits you from debating others' positions unless you're equally willing to give their arguments due consideration.

So that's it. The first injunction prohibits most non-victimless crimes, because we would all rather not be the victim of them, and the second permits harm to come to others, but only if we can reasonably assert that it will prevent greater harm elsewhere, or in the future.

With a little reasoning, as far as I can tell, every action or injunction we can reasonable justify as "moral" seems to be derived from these two principles.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Geeks can be hard to work with

Geeks and especially programmers often have strong belief in "doing things right". People have remarked on this tendency, and given it a variety of negative characterisations: obsessive-compulsive, irrational, making a moral issue out of a pragmatic question.

As a geek and a programmer, I put my hands up to this stereotype - it doesn't affect us all, but enough of us (myself included) have some degree of it that I don't think it's inaccurate. However, I believe that far from being a drawback, it's arguably a vital component of a gifted developer.

I think this urge toward technical correctness comes from three main sources:


Good programmers spend a lot of their time thinking in details - they have to, to be able to write reliable code. Programmers who gloss over or fudge details write buggy code with unhandled and unknown edge-cases.

Importantly, this code usually "sort-of" works most of the time (or at least, the obviously broken bits quickly get patched), and then occasionally fails spectacularly and catastrophically... at which point it's also usually blamed on the programmer who wrote it, rather than the manager who specified an over-complex requirement, or who provided an unreasonably small amount of resources (time, money, manpower) to achieve it.

Being a programmer is 50% artistic and 50% autistic, so it's hardly surprising that programmers can be a bit Aspergers-y about their code, especially when they're likely to carry the can for any catastrophic failures caused by it.

Artistic merit

Any programmer who isn't a journeyman or hack does the job because they like to create things, and as you get better mere creation isn't satisfying - instead you want to create things of beauty.

It's been noted before that (many or most good) programmers are makers - we need to feel that what we're creating reflects our abilities - something we'd be happy to put our name to - and we like delivering good, reliable, flexible, well-designed systems.

Banging out code or design you know is buggy, unreliable, inflexible or has unhandled edge-cases is simply not rewarding in the slightest. It's like hiring an artist to paint a wall blue, or hiring a sprinter to walk slowly to the shops for you.

To be fair, this is a very wishy-washy, non-business-oriented motivation, but I'd go so far as to say pretty much all the best programmers suffer from it - it seems to go with the territory, and not just from programmers, either - chefs are notoriously histrionic, artists are notoriously high-strung about their work and musicians are notoriously unstable or prone to mental illnesses. I don't think you can have excellence without pride in the work, and I don't think you can have pride in work without disillusionment and frustration when you're forced to churn out work you know is crap.


I've been privately or professionally involved in software development for around 15 years. I've worked in a variety of companies, in a variety of languages and systems, and with a variety of different management styles.

Across all companies, management structures, languages, technologies and system there are only two things I'm utterly certain of:

  1. Given the choice between a longer/more expensive design and a simpler, less flexible one, management will almost always say "design it to the current requirements, because we'll never need <hypothetical scenario X>, and it would be a waste of time to build a system which takes it into account".
  2. From the date of hearing this, within six months to a year they will discover a pressing, immediate, unavoidable and business-critical need for scenario X... and if they don't react well to being told that this will now take longer to accommodate, they often react really badly to being gently informed this is the result of the decision they took several months previously, at which point you (or your predecessor) informed them that this would be the consequence if they ever encountered scenario X.

Personally I try very hard to avoid taking dogmatic positions on anything, but in the years I've spent programming (especially professionally, when you're most likely to have to compromise on the design or implementation to hit deadlines or budgets), I - literally, with no exaggeration - don't believe I've ever heard "we'll never need that" and then not had to implement it (whatever it was) within a few months of that date.

This only has to happen a few times (especially when you're responsible for cleaning up the mess) before you become firmly convinced that creating a system that's any less flexible than you can possibly manage is ultimately tantamount to just fucking yourself square in the ass.

There are reasons...

So yes - there are a number of reasons why programmers are obsessed with Doing The Right Thing, and why we tend to react with aesthetic revulsion to the idea of fudging designs, or hard-coding things for convenience.

Some of them are unfortunate but understood and accommodated in other disciplines - try commissioning an artist to produce art for your offices then ban him from using anything except potato-prints, or tell an architect (for deadline/budget reasons) to design you a building that they know damn well could fall down at any moment.

Others are actually vital aspects of being a programmer that you can't easily switch on and off - athletes have to be fit, programmers have to be anally-retentive and precise - and that you really wouldn't want to do without in your dev team.

Lastly, if you're a non-technical co-worker or manager, programmers often have a lot more experience working on software projects than you do, and have learned hard-won lessons you aren't even aware are available to learn... particularly lessons where they have to pick up the pieces from their own (or other people's) mistakes.

So yeah, geeks can be hard to work with. But then the guy who knows where the landmines are buried can be awfully prescriptive about where you put your feet as you navigate through a minefield, too. And unless you want your feet blown off, it's often worth listening to them.