1957, a psychologist named B. F. Skinner decided to see what happened
when you put a rat in a cage with a lever that made food come out.
He discovered that if the food came out whenever the lever was pushed, the rat
would settle into a healthy work-life balance of pushing levers and running
hamster wheels. But if the lever only delivered food sometimes—if
it randomly might or might not—the rat would work that lever like there was
underpinned much development of poker machines and gaming.
Now Diablo III reveals what happens when the rats have
internet access: they bitch about drop rates.
The Diablo series of games are simple:
you run through dungeons, hit monsters, and collect the items that fall
out. Usually the items are crappy, but sometimes, randomly,
they’re awesome, and allow you to fight even more powerful monsters, which can
randomly drop even more awesome items. The game ends when you starve to death
in your apartment surrounded by empty soda cans.
Actually, that’s not true: there is an end-game. Your character can’t progress
beyond level 60 and there’s a hard maximum to the potential quality of items. So there is
a diminishing returns thing: early in the game, you find better
items often, but as your equipment approaches the theoretical
maximum, your odds of finding something better become decreasingly smaller.
Diablo III had a few problems when it launched,
and there was
much bitching on internet forums. A great deal of the bitching was about
drop rates; that is, how likely food was to arrive when you pressed the lever. Players
thought drop rates were too low, if you were wondering. They
wanted food to come out more regularly. A very popular proposal, one
mentioned in almost every discussion, no matter how relevant, was
that more situations should deliver “a guaranteed rare,”
a “rare” being a high-quality item. That is, instead of food only coming
out sometimes when you pushed the lever, it would come out every time.
This feedback around drop rates was offered to the developers in the form of an unholy maelstrom
of teenage-grade internet fury that raged for many weeks. Players railed against the bitterness of
a life of inadequate drop rates, expressing their incomprehension that such
stupidity should exist and turning viciously against their former idol,
game designer Jay Wilson, who was now revealed not as a benevolent
provider of sometimes-food but rather the very face of evil,
Diablo himself, as it were, He Who Made The Lever Not Work Often Enough.
Some of the angst was understandable. Diablo III introduced an in-game
Auction House, which meant that
instead of throwing your old items away as you found new ones, you could
sell them to other players for gold. The marketplace being virtual
and therefore operating with a degree of efficiency rarely seen in the real
world, it was soon a lot easier to find good items on the Auction House than
to go around hitting monsters hoping that one would randomly fall out.
This in turn allowed players to obtain items approaching the hard maximum
quite quickly after starting the game, and rendering their chances of
thereafter seeing anything better randomly drop from a monster close to zero.
After sufficient buffeting, the developers decided to increase drop rates.
They also created more
“guaranteed rare” situations. This was very warmly received by
the community. It wasn’t enough, though, and since then drop rates have been raised
again, and “legendary” items radically overhauled to make them much
better, i.e. more like food. At the same time, a new reward system was introduced
called “Paragon Levels,” which periodically deliver such an enormous explosion of
congratulation to the player that it almost feels sarcastic. This has quieted
community angst, although at this point it’s hard to tell how many of them are left.
I suspect a lot have stopped pushing the lever.
The interesting part about the rats who like to gamble is that they don’t do
it for food. They don’t press the lever only as many times as required to deliver the
same amount of food as when food delivery is guaranteed: they press it more often
and more rapidly. They like to see if they can win. Although “like” could be the wrong
word; it may be more accurate to say that the uncertainty creates stress, which
they feel the need to resolve. I would imagine there are some pretty pissed-off
rats, when they press the lever a bunch of times and still nothing happens. They
would rage on the internet if they could. And they’d be justified, since it
wasn’t their choice to get in the cage.
Somebody put them there, who knew what would happen.
Blogs are dying. Not this blog. I mean in general. This blog’s
just fine. Okay, yes, it has been a little while since the last post,
but that’s just because I was busy writing. Well. Rewriting. It’s like
writing, only with less visible progress. With writing, you can
feel reasonably assured that what you put on the page is
better than what was there before. Not always! But mostly.
Rewriting, though, you can spend a good six hours on a scene,
sit back, and think, “Yep… that’s worse.”
Anyway. Blogs are OUT. They’re too long. That’s the problem. No-one
has the time for them. The middle is hollowing out.
Everything is polarizing. We want
things to be very. It doesn’t matter what. Whatever it is, only very.
There’s no place for mid-length writing any more. There never was,
of course. But blogs used to be short. Then Twitter. Now blogs
are like One Day Cricket.*
But here we are! And it’s already been more than 140 characters. So
let’s continue. This blog will summarize what I’ve been thinking
about over the last few months, while I was busy making my new
book not worse.
The first one or two were kind of shocking to
me, like a thought come to life. The next few were
disappointing, like repeated plot points.
we’re at, what, the seventh Nike sneaker riot? When
does it become less likely that they’re continually being surprised
by this kind of thing happening and more likely that they’re deliberately engineering it?
That’s just a question. I’m just wondering.
Now in post-production.
I have been shown a teaser-trailer thing and it is
heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve watched it three hundred times.
I’m not joking. The only thing that sucks about the Syrup
movie is I’m not allowed to tell you anything. But soon. Soon…
This interests me because privacy is obviously very
important for reasons nobody understands.
Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies
and governments to want to know things about you than for you
to keep your data private. That leads to an interesting place.
This is the most valuable skill in the world,
right? People who are good at persuading others
become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded
by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this. Very few
people actually go out and learn how to be better at persuasion,
or more aware of its forms. Why is that?
Also, the US as a culture is very advanced at soft persuasion (i.e.
the forms of persuasion that don’t involve threats of bodily harm).
It is great at selling stuff. We have the Internet and free access
to vast stores of information but we’re still buying products with
the cleverest ads, and electing politicians with the most reassuring
voices. I wonder what happens if a culture becomes so good
at persuasion that there is no longer an incentive to produce
products that are just objectively good, as opposed to well-sold.
Privacy + Persuasion.
It’s easier to persuade people if you
know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can
get more information from them. That’s an interesting dynamic, too.
But this is too depressing for now so I’ll blog about it later.
That’s a lot of Ps, for some reason.
(* This analogy works because even if you don’t know cricket, you
know it is stupid and anachronistic.)
This has been a great year for male writers, with women shunted
aside for major prizes and all-new hand-wringing about why it is so.
Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but male writers get taken
more seriously. Also, stories about men, even if written by women,
are considered mainstream, while stories about women are “women’s fiction.”
This despite the fact that women read more than men, and write
more, and are over-represented generally throughout publishing.
As the father of two girls, one aged five and one ten months,
I know why. It’s because of dogs and Smurfs.
I can’t understand why no-one else realizes this. I see
these knotted-brow articles and the writers seem truly perplexed.
Dogs and Smurfs: that’s the answer.
Let me walk you through it. We’ll start with dogs. I have
written about this before, but to save you the click: people assume dogs are male.
Listen out for it: you will find it’s true. To short-cut
the process, visit the zoo, because when I say “dogs,” I really mean,
“all animals except maybe cats.” The air of a zoo teems with “he.”
I have stood in front of baboons with teats like missile launchers
and heard adults exclaim to their children, “Look at him!” Once I saw
an unsuspecting monkey taken from behind and there was a surprised
silence from the crowd and then someone made a joke about sodomy.
People assume animals are male. If you haven’t already noticed this, it’s
only because it’s so pervasive. We also assume people are male,
unless they’re doing something particularly feminine; you’ll usually say “him”
about an unseen car driver, for example. But it’s ubiquitous in regard to
Now, kids like animals. Kids really fucking like animals. Kids are little animal
stalkers, fascinated by absolutely anything an animal does. They read books about
animals. I just went through my daughter’s bookshelves, and they all have
animals on the cover. Animals everywhere.
And because publishing is terribly progressive, and because Jen and I
look out for it, a lot of those animals are girls. But still: a
ton of boys. Because of the assumption.
Here’s an example: a truly great
kids’ book is Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. I love
this story, but on page 22, after being called “it” three times, an
otherwise sexless penguin twice becomes “he.”
This would never, ever happen the other way around. The only reason
a penguin can abruptly become male in an acclaimed children’s book
without anybody noticing is because we had already assumed
Then you’ve got Smurf books. Not actual Smurfs. I mean stories
where there are five major characters, and one is brave and one is smart
and one is grumpy and one keeps rats for pets and one is a girl.
Smurfs, right? Because there was Handy Smurf and
Chef Smurf and Dopey Smurf and Painter Smurf and ninety-four other male
Smurfs and Smurfette. Smurfette’s unique
personality trait was femaleness. That was the thing she
did better than anyone else. Be a girl.
Smurf books are not as common as they used to be, but Smurf stories
are, oddly, everywhere on the screen. Pixar makes practically nothing else.
I am so disappointed by
this, because they make almost every kids’ film worth watching.
WALL-E is good. I will grant them WALL-E, because Eve is so awesome. But
otherwise: lots of Smurfs.
Male is default. That’s what you learn from a world of boy dogs
and Smurf stories. My daughter has no problem with this. She
reads these books the way they were intended: not about boys,
exactly, but about people who happen to be boys. After years
of such books, my daughter can happily identify with these characters.
And this is great. It’s the reason she will grow into a woman who
can happily read a novel about men, or watch a movie in which
men do all the most interesting things, without feeling like she
can’t relate. She will process these stories as being primarily
not about males but about human beings.
Except it’s not happening the other way. The five-year-old boy who lives up
the street from me does not have a shelf groaning with stories about
girl animals. Because you have to seek those books out,
and as the parent of a boy, why would you? There are so many great
books about boys to which he can relate directly.
Smurf stories must make perfect sense to him: all the characters
with this one weird personality trait to distinguish them, like
being super brave or smart or frightened or a girl.
I have been told that this is a good thing for girls. “That makes girls
more special,” said this person, who I wanted to punch in the face.
That’s the problem. Being female should not be special. It should
be normal. It is normal, in the real world. There are all kinds of girls. There are
all kinds of women. You just wouldn’t think so, if you only
paid attention to dogs and Smurfs.
Is it the positive role model thing? Because
I don’t want only positive female role models. I want
the spectrum. Angry girls, happy girls, mean girls. Lazy girls.
Girls who lie and girls who
hit people and do the wrong thing sometimes. I’m pretty sure my daughters
can figure out for themselves which personality aspects they
should emulate, if only they see the diversity.
It’s not like this is hard. Dogs and Smurfs: we’re not
talking about searing journeys to the depths of the soul. An elephant
whose primary story purpose is to steal some berries does not
have to be male. Not every time. Characters can be girls just because
they happen to be girls.
P.S. Don’t talk to me about Sassette. Sassette was like the three millionth
Smurf invented. You get no credit for that.
I wrote some code to embed my tweets on my website.
There’s a statement that would have made no sense in 1990.
Actually, it barely makes sense now. But I did it. I’m proud
of my site. I built it myself. Occasionally
I get an email saying, “What software do you
use to run your site and how do I get it?” I think the answer is:
receive a Commodore 64 for your tenth birthday and no good
But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I decided
to grow my own vegetables. A few people I knew were growing
their own vegetables, and they kept yakking about
how wonderful it was, not depending on manufactured
supermarket vegetables, which are evil for some reason,
so I thought what the hell.
For a while I was intimidated by the idea of growing
vegetables. When I reach for a vegetable, I usually just want
to eat it. I don’t want to be intimately involved with its creation.
I worried I would end up spending more time tending
to the health of fragile, overly complicated peas than eating them.
Then I saw an ad for genetically modified seeds. These
promised to take the hassle out of growing vegetables,
which seemed pretty intriguing. The tomatoes would be big and red
and I wouldn’t have to do anything. So I got those.
This upset my hippy friends. Especially when I started
having problems. My frankenfruit was supposed
to be simple but after a few weeks the whole garden stopped
growing. My cabbages were flaccid. My carrots were anemic.
My spinach wouldn’t self-seed. It wasn’t supposed to self-seed.
The genetics company had engineered it not to,
so I’d have to buy new seeds each season. But I thought there should be
a way around that.
I asked my hippy friends for help.
Well! You’d think I asked for a kidney.
They kept bringing up the fact that I was using GM seeds.
Eventually they all got together and said, “Max… we can’t
help you any more. We want to. But you brought these
problems on yourself. And the thing is,
when you ask for help,
you’re actually asking us to use our skills and knowledge
to prop up a corporatized product that’s not just practically
inferior to the free alternative you ignored, but actually
bad for the world. We just can’t do that.”
And that was how I taught them to stop asking me for help
I can’t believe people keep getting surprised by Facebook. They use your personal information to make money. They have no financial interest in your privacy but a huge one in eroding it. It’s been like that since forever.
I saw a guy post that he was “continuously shocked” by Facebook’s privacy invasions. How can you be continuously shocked? At some point, don’t you realize this is simply the way it is?
Anyway. I didn’t mean to write about Facebook. I meant to write about technology. I’m allowed to do more geeky blogs this year, because I have a book coming out about cyborgs. So check this out. This is Amazon’s AuthorCentral Metrics. It shows how many of my books are being sold and where:
This is a free service to authors. There’s also a history:
Last time I had a book published, I had to wait ten months for a royalty statement to find out whether anyone bought it. Machine Man I’ll be able to follow in almost-real-time. I’m not sure whether that’s useful for anything, other than satisfying impatience. But still.
Here’s what I really want. The screenshot below is from YouTube. A while back I uploaded a video of
my daughter being incredibly cute. YouTube tracks whether people watch all the way to the end, and, if not, where they give up, to create a graph of “attention.”
I want this for books. I would kill for it. I want to know at which point people are putting my books down, or giving up on them, so I can write better ones next time. I want to know which parts they re-read. It’s got to be possible now, with e-readers. Get on that, Amazon.
I was all set to do a blog about how using Windows is like growing evil tomatoes,
then American corporations became real people. They’ve been people for a while,
of course: they have the right to own things and sue you and claim they’ve been
defamed. Your chair can’t do that. A corporation can, because it’s a person.
But they weren’t enough of a person, apparently, so now they
have First Amendment rights. In particular, they have the right to spend
much money as they like on political advertising: airing ads in favor of
anti-regulation candidates over pro-regulation ones, for example.
I find it helpful to think of
corporations as lawnmowers.
Lawnmowers are good at cutting grass. It’s all they want to do.
They’re not very concerned about
what gets in the way of cutting grass.
If, for example, we discover that one of the lawnmowers sometimes
kills people, the lawnmower would rather pretend there
isn’t a problem than stop mowing lawns. It seems callous to us. But you have
to remember, it’s not a person. It’s a lawnmower.
pursue profit; the fewer people watching, the more ruthlessly they do
it. It’s not coincidence that Apple is a relatively nice corporation
and Halliburton is not. It’s not that Apple was raised right while
Halliburton had a distant father. It’s that Apple’s profits depend more
heavily on consumer opinion. It can’t make money unless it’s likable,
so it is.
I think lawnmowers are useful. I don’t want to get rid of them. But
I very much want to keep them on the lawns.
The Supreme Court has let them into homes: now the lawnmowers
will speak to us through TV, radio, internet, print, and tell us
who to vote for. That might not seem like a problem. After all,
you are a smart person. You’re probably not persuaded by advertising. The thing
is, everyone thinks that, and advertising is an $600 billion industry.
Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion.
It’s pretty obvious that
lawnmowers will back pro-lawnmower candidates. They are functionally
and legally prevented from doing anything else. In fact, now that the opportunity
exists, lawnmowers are compelled to exploit it.
Honestly, I had started to think that the world of Jennifer Government
was getting far-fetched. It seemed like corporations were not overpowering
the government at all; instead,
the two were slowly merging into a govern-corp
megabeast. But this changes things. Until now, corporate lobbyists
have essentially stood in opposition to voters: politicians wanted lobbyist money,
but resisted giving in too much for fear of being punished at the ballot box.
Now corporations can work it both ways. They can buy off the politicians and
sell the voters on why that’s A-OK. They won’t have to come up with the
media messages themselves. That’s a job for the ad agency. All they’ll do is
write up the ad brief, spelling out what they want people to think, and sign the checks.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in handing down
a dissenting decision,
raised the prospect of
corporations being given the vote. Since, after all, they
are people now. We might as well. A single vote is nothing
compared to what they’ll do by bringing their wealth to mass persuasive political advertising.
It’s interesting to note how corporations get to pick and choose the good parts of being a person. They can own
property but can’t go to prison. They can sue you into bankruptcy, which you have
to live with for the rest of your life, but if you win a big case against them,
you get nothing while they reconstitute their assets and arise, Phoenix-like, under a new name.
If you misbehave, you are personally responsible; a corporation
jettisons a minor component it says was to blame.
There is no ending them. This is the kind of personhood you would choose,
if you could. It’s what happens when people making laws about corporations
are themselves beholden to corporations.
It’s not evil, exactly. It’s
just everyone doing their jobs. It’s just the way the system works:
the system that is increasingly designed by lawnmowers.