Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

Resilience is not a consolation prize

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I don’t get angry at online writers, or headline writers, that often, but a tweet from Wired regarding the go match between AlphaGo, the computing engine built by the DeepMind section of the company formerly known as Google, and world champion Lee Sedol, pushed my buttons.

Lee lost the first three games of the match, but all five games were to be played regardless of the outcome. The Wired tweet that ticked me off referred to Lee’s win in Game 4 against AlphaGo as a “consolation win”. Cade Metz, the author of the piece referenced by the tweet, said that Lee “clawed back a degree of pride for himself and the millions of people who watched the match online.”

No, he didn’t. Not because Lee couldn’t regain his pride after having no hope of winning the five-game series, but because he never lost it. Lee admitted to playing a loose opening in Game 1, but based on the AlphaGo games he’d seen from previous matches, he didn’t think the program was strong enough to take advantage of the situation. It was. At no time, the world champion said, did he think he was ahead. In Games 2 and 3 he played better moves, but AlphaGo still forced resignation. Part of the problem was that AlphaGo didn’t use as much of its allotted two hours for early moves as Lee did, so the computer was way ahead on the clock for most of the game. Early moves create the framework for the rest of the game, so players must weigh them carefully.

Lee was clearly frustrated by his inability to win any games in the first part of the match, but he came into Game 4 ready for the struggle and played a surprising, powerful move in the middle of the board after not getting much out of the opening. Expert commentator Michael Redmond, a 9-dan professional player (the highest rank awarded), said he didn’t see Lee’s wedge move coming, but as the game progressed he realized its power. Despite running very low on time, Lee was able to maintain his momentum and take advantage of aimless play by AlphaGo to secure the win.

The Wired story should have centered on the theme of a human player beating a go engine for what might be the last time. The best computer chess programs are favored to beat even world champion Magnus Carlsen in 99.9% of their games. AlphaGo’s improvement over the past five months, when it played well enough to win 5-0 against a professional rated in the top 650 players in the world but made clear errors, is astonishing. AlphaGo trains its neural nets by playing against itself at high speed, earning decades of play experience in months. I don’t doubt it will be unbeatable by humans in a very short time.

Lee stepped up under extremely difficult and very public circumstances to secure a brilliant win. The advances in machine learning behind AlphaGo’s abilities in a game thought to be too complex for computers to manage are notable, but Lee Sedol’s play and fighting spirit are the real story.

Written by curtisfrye

March 14, 2016 at 10:00 am

Dr. Adam Gazzaley: Gaming and Brain (OHSU Brain Awareness Series)

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Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) is a leading research and teaching institution located in Portland. They run a speaker series every year, with this year’s presentations centered on the brain. I’d forgotten to put the talk in my Outlook calendar, so I was very happy to receive a reminder message earlier Monday.

Our Speaker

The speaker, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a member of the faculty at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and, as required by California state law, a co-founder of and adviser to a start-up company. That company, Akili Interactive Labs, produces games designed to provide cognitive benefits to players who play the games for 30-minute sessions three times a week over the course of a month or two. Gazzaley is an engaging speaker, though it seems like he’s spent a lot of his recent appearances speaking more about ideas and vision than hard science. As another attendee remarked in the lobby after the talk, “His presentation was more like a performance than a science lecture.” That approach isn’t surprising, given that he co-founded a company and has to compete for investment funds, so I didn’t think it was a problem.

I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I realized the presentation focused on brain training using games. Lumosity recently agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising action that claimed the company’s brain games could help students and seniors improve mental performance. Gazzaley was quick to point out that Akili’s games are going through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, with their first game ready to move from a pilot program step to wider public testing. Unlike Lumosity’s claims and those of “nutraceutical” supplements (available in stores throughout the U.S. or your favorite multi-level marketing scheme) which make claims that have not been evaluated by the FDA, Akili is going through the rigorous, some would say onerous, testing required by the FDA before it will back up claims of a product’s efficacy. Gazzaley emphasized that if the games don’t pass FDA trials the first time around, they’ll revise them and try again.

Works in Progress

Gazzaley showed several games that combine motor skills and recognition tasks. The game that’s farthest along in testing is a driving game where the player attempts to keep a vehicle centered on a winding road using a joystick. The player must also press the joystick’s button when the vehicle passes under a sign that displays a designated symbol from a set of possible designs. The game’s adaptive algorithms increase or decrease the difficulty level based on the player’s performance, with the goal of encouraging an upward path. The player must switch between the two tasks — as switching becomes more fluid, their score increases. Gazzaley noted that “humans love to level up” regardless of age, a finding borne out by gamification research, so games are a natural mode for brain training.

He also noted that there is the possibility games can be used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ADHD, and other conditions. While his work on games as treatment is still in the very early stages, there is the potential for significant advances. This research program will benefit from new devices such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens, which generate virtual reality spaces in which a player may act. There are also interesting new neurological measurement devices, such as a whole-head electroencephalogram (EEG) helmet that transmits data to a waiting computer, that can provide researchers additional flexibility in measuring brain activity. I also see great potential for other serious game applications involving teams, such as squad-level military exercises or firefighting, though Dr. Gazzaley said that he’s not aware of any work yet in that area.

Conclusion

I enjoyed Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation. Yes, it was a little flashier and a little less sciencey than other talks I’ve attended, but he provided a lot of useful information and compelling demonstrations that made the hour fly by. I will definitely follow his work in the coming years.

To Be a Beginner Again

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When I think of what it means to “be a beginner” at something, I think of learning a new language or trying a new sport. I didn’t expect to rediscover the joys and struggles of being a beginner as a writer.

I had just finished Microsoft Excel 2016 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, my sixth Excel Step by Step book, when the publisher approached me to take on Microsoft OneNote Step by Step. I looked at my schedule, swallowed hard, and agreed to do it. I’d worked a bit with OneNote as part of my Office Online Essential Training course for lynda.com, so, while I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t coming in completely cold. Besides, I’m a writer and course developer—my job is to tease out a program’s intricacies and make them clear to the reader or viewer. How hard could it be?

I’ll pause until you stop laughing.

You can write a book about anything if you do enough research, develop a few ideas of your own, and quote liberally from other sources. I just read a business book, Everything Connects, that did exactly that. The main author probably wrote a great proposal based on his experiences as a serial entrepreneur and meditation practitioner, took his advance, and wrote down everything he could about those subjects. My guess is that he produced about 150 pages for a planned 250-page book, so the publisher brought in (or had already hired) a professional writer as co-author.

I also turned to the supporting literature on OneNote for guidance, but there’s not a lot out there compared to the vast, rich resources on Excel. That said, I wrote what I could and discovered a lot as I went along, but I didn’t have an experienced user’s feel for the program. I’m fortunate Microsoft convinced Ed Price, formerly a member of the OneNote product team, to be the book’s technical editor. Ed knows the software in depth, both as a user and someone familiar with the broader customer base’s needs and desires. He added a lot of material I’d considered not important enough to include, changed the emphasis of certain sections of the book to improve its usefulness, and became, in all but name, a full co-author.

I’m grateful for the substantial help Ed provided and hope to make him a full co-author, with cover credit, when it comes time to refresh the book. As a writer it was good, though incredibly frustrating, to write about a program I hadn’t worked with extensively. I had 20 years of skill and discipline to power through a first draft we could use as a basis for critique, but I had several flashbacks to when I was just starting out and lacked the tools I have now.

I survived (with the help of Ed and others), the book will provide good value to OneNote users, and I was reminded how difficult a thing it is to produce a manuscript from whole cloth. I’m glad I agreed to help out, but I’m sure glad we’re done.

Review of The Art of Language Invention

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Title: The Art of Language Invention

Author: David J. Peterson

Publisher: Penguin

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-143-12646-1

Length: 284

Price: $17.00

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

During my high school years, I thought it would be fun to invent my own language. Something like English, but heavily influenced by the many related Romance languages popular in Europe. I described this vision to my French teacher and she said, “You mean, like Esperanto?” One encyclopedia article later and I was on to other projects.

Others were not so easily deterred. David J. Peterson parlayed his childhood love of languages into a master’s degree in linguistics and a career inventing languages for the HBO series Game of Thrones, SyFy’s Defiance, and other projects. In The Art of Language Invention, Peterson shares his experiences as a language developer along with enough background in linguistics to appreciate the decisions and effort that go into creating a new language.

Linguistics as a Discipline

While at Syracuse University in the late 1980s, I had the good fortune to take LING 201 from Professor William Ritchie. That course surveyed the mechanics of linguistic analysis by introducing topics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, while also describing writing systems, language families, linguistic evolution, and interactions that produce new forms of language such as dialects, creoles, and pidgins. I thought it was fascinating stuff and went on to take several more linguistics classes. I would have taken even more if they’d counted toward my degree program.

In a little over 250 pages, Peterson does an excellent job of covering the topics from LING 201 such that a reader with little or no training in linguistics can appreciate the tools and, perhaps more importantly, the effort that goes into developing a language complete with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Even readers with only a passing interest in language creation but who would like an approachable introduction to linguistics could benefit from Peterson’s work.

Constructed Languages in Popular Media

The hook behind The Art of Language Invention, of course, is Peterson’s development of Dothraki and Valyrian for the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Peterson weaves the tale of how he developed Dothraki and Valyrian throughout his coverage of various linguistic topics, supplementing his own insights and results with those of other language creators. As a co-founder of the Language Creation Society, which you can find online at conlang.org, Peterson created a meeting point for language enthusiasts to share their work and their love of language.

What I appreciated most about language development at the professional level is the attention to backstory and evolution. Just as it’s impossible to fully appreciate English without knowing how it has changed over the years, developers can’t construct a new language without giving significant thought to its proto-language and the cultural, geographic, and political forces that shaped it over time. Peterson’s commentary on how those decisions get made, and how they affect the end state of the language, provide terrific insights into his process.

Conclusion

I believe The Art of Language Invention is a terrific book that intertwines the geeky worlds of linguistics and speculative fiction into a satisfying manuscript. Yes, I am in many ways an embodiment of this book’s target audience, but if you share even a part of my enthusiasm for the subject, you should read Peterson’s work.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 30 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Management and Motivation

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I’ve recently investigated online courses at the MBA level, including taking a managerial accounting course through the University of Illinois. My work and other obligations piled up after I took that course, so I’ve held off taking further for-credit classes until at least January.

To supplement my work through Illinois, I bought a DVD series from The Great Courses entitled Critical Business Skills for Success. The series combines 12-lecture segments on operations, marketing, strategy, organizational behavior, and finance and accounting. The material is presented as an overview of each broad subject, with specific lectures focusing on topics such as the time value of money, rightsizing inventory, and evaluating mergers and acquisitions. There’s very little math and no homework, so the lessons are nowhere near as rigorous as the managerial accounting course, but it’s a great introduction to material I’ll study in depth later.

I’m watching the organizational behavior section now, presented by Clinton O. Longenecker of the University of Toledo. In his lecture “The Motivation-Performance Connection”, he offers some surprising results from a survey of corporate managers. His research found:

  • 85% of managers believe an employee’s motivation has a significant impact on performance
  • 79% believe that motivating employees is one of the most important leadership functions
  • 94% believe workforce motivation is important for overall operational success
  • 82% believe management behavior has a significant impact on employee motivation
  • 68% believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees

The numbers seem reasonable enough, so where’s the surprise? The surprise is that the first four items aren’t 100% (OK, 98% to account for the 2% lunatic fringe). It’s especially troubling to see the 9% gap between responses indicating belief that motivation impacts individual performance and that overall motivation is necessary for operational success.

I suspect there is a connection between those results and the final figure, that 68% of managers believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees. The economic downturn in 2008 led to significant layoffs and delayed retirements, which artificially flooded the job market with experienced workers who where either seeking employment or couldn’t afford to retire. Now that employment levels have returned to pre-2008 levels and the stock market has restored portfolio values, the labor market has started to tighten considerably, especially for highly skilled workers. When you add easy online communication about employment practices, increased expectations for good treatment, and labor mobility you have an environment where the privilege of coming to work tomorrow morning is no longer sufficient motivation for your employees.

Review of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Title: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author: Whitney Phillips

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02894-3

Length: 248

Price: $24.95

Rating: 90%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Ah, trolls…so much fun to watch when they’re harassing someone you think deserves it and so infuriating when they get under your skin. Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon on trolling behavior. That dissertation provides the foundation for This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things from MIT Press.

What is Trolling?

Phillips notes that the central theme of all trolling is lulz, which she defines as amusement at other peoples’ distress. Proactive schadenfreude, I guess. Trolls are perfectly happy to derive their enjoyment from regular users, public figures, and other trolls. All that matters are the lulz.

One of the first widespread instances of trolling took place when a group of trolls invaded the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats, asking increasingly odd questions and suggesting inappropriate solutions to feline health issues. Regardless of your cat’s respiratory issues, you probably won’t need to aerate it with a .357 hollow-point bullet. I never visited the rec.pets.cats group, but discussion of the trolls’ behavior leaked over to the groups I did participate in. Even the collateral damage was significant. Another early example on Usenet, though one that bordered on spam as well, was “Serdar Argic”, an alias for what appeared to have been multiple posters sending out hundreds of lengthy posts per day denying the Armenian genocide from the early 20th century to groups such as soc.culture.history.

Trolling as Rhetoric

As a communications scholar, Phillips takes on trolling as a rhetorical activity, placing it in a broader cultural context as both product and amplifier of certain aspects of society. Specifically, the masculine drive for domination and as a complement to the 24-hour news cycle.

One reason middle school is such a vile experience for many children is the constant barrage of status games, where kids try to find their place in society at the expense of their classmates. Male trolls, who appear to dominate the landscape, continue this type of aggressive behavior online. They base their rhetorical strategies on the work of Arthur Schopenhauer’s book The Art of Controversy, which melds Aristotelian logic and Socratian dialectic with the Dark Side of the Force. The trolls’ goal is to invoke negative emotions from their targets and, upon eliciting insults or harsh language in response to their own provocations, remind their victims that there’s no room for rudeness in civilized argument and go right back to taking arguments out of context, insulting their opponent, and racking up the lulz.

Phillips also takes issue with conservative media, particularly Fox News and its handling of the Birther controversy, which raised the question as to whether President Barack Obama (usually spoken as Barack HUSSEIN Obama) should release his long-form birth certificate and, after it was released, whether it was a legitimate document. Fox News rode that story hard for much of 2008 and 2009 — you can still hear the echoes if you listen closely. Trolls took advantage of the coverage and some images of Obama to create intentionally offensive and racist memes.

That’s not to say trollish behavior is strictly the purview of Fox News and its ilk. When the Tea Party affiliate in Troy, Michigan had early success turning sentiment against a levy intended to fund the town’s library, an advertising agency devised a campaign purported to be from a group named Safeguarding American Families. The ads expressed opposition to the measure and announced the group would hold a book-burning party. The outrage at this fictitious statement turned sentiment in favor of the ballot measure, which ultimately passed.

Phillips also offers an interesting commentary on trolls as trickster characters. The trickster is known for undercutting the foundations of a society’s cultures or mores but not replacing it with anything. Rather than offer a helpful solution for how things could be done better, tricksters start a fire and walk away. When there are no more lulz to be had, the troll’s work is done.

Transitioning to a Publishable Book

Academic writing is often completely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the author’s field of inquiry. My brother wrote his dissertation on a public policy subject I found interesting, but I couldn’t get through more than three pages of the final document. (Sorry, Doug. I know I said I read the whole thing, but my soup spoon kept creeping toward my eyeballs.) Passive voice is used to maintain a semblance of objectivity and distance, specialized language pervades the text, and rewrites continue until the ultimate academic hazing ritual is complete.

Kind of makes me wonder if dissertation committees haven’t been trolling candidates since the 1500s.

Phillips and her editors did a terrific job of excising unneeded jargon from the text, though some usage and conventions they kept leap off the page. The seemingly ubiquitous forward slash appeared in the section on method/ology, but at least there were no indiscretions on the order of the visual pun When the (M)other is a Fat/Her that William Germano mentions in Getting it Published. That said, while phrasings indicating someone is “gendered” as male have entered the general literature, saying someone was “raced” as Caucasian still seems odd to this generally interested reader.

Conclusions

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a terrific introduction to the world of trolling, exploring how trolls put on figurative masks (or literal masks in the case of online anonymity) and generate lulz from those they encounter. As a former competitive debater in high school and college, I’m dismayed by the violence done to my beloved art of rhetorical controversy. Score some lulz for the trolls, I guess. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

April 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Marshawn Lynch and the Broken Sports Media Model

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I’ve long been on record, not that anyone cared, as being in favor of a law banning the post-game interview. Professional athletes who have just spent 60-to-90 minutes of game time busting their guts for our entertainment shouldn’t be forced to answer questions asked for the sole purpose of getting a meaningless quote for an article or a four-second sound bite on television.

Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks is calling out the absurdity of the system prior to Super Bowl L-1, but there are plenty of other examples from popular culture. Crash Davis drilling Nuke LaLouche on his cliches in Bull Durham, Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons giving the same answer to every question after a disappointing playoff loss, or the carefully measured statements Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and LeBron James offer in their media appearances come to mind immediately. They all use language to discharge their responsibilities while maintaining as much privacy as possible.

What interesting information could Marshawn Lynch, or any other Super Bowl participant, provide without compromising their game plan? The fact they’re happy to be there and are taking it one game at a time isn’t interesting, but reporters ask their questions so they can get a fresh quote (any quote) to round out their article or broadcast segment.

The problem extends to broadcast and commentary as well. Julius Erving said that he quit his studio commentary gig because he was tired of dumbing basketball down to second-grade level. Richard Sherman, the amazing cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, similarly challenged a reporter, who persisted in trying to get Sherman to compare himself to a cornerback on the New England Patriots, to ask him questions that weren’t at “nursery school” level.

Even the broadcasters know what’s up. In a hilariously open and honest segment on a hockey broadcast I watched last year, two of them admitted as much. A player who had just retired joined the broadcast team in the booth and expressed an interest in becoming a color commentator.

Play-by-Play Guy: Go ahead and give a shot!

Recently Retired Player: I have no idea what to say.

Color Commentator (also a former player): It doesn’t matter…just say it with energy.

Recently Retired Player: The Sharks need to pick it up here!!!

(all laugh)

Color Commentator: See!!??

I’d much rather that professional athletes be given the opportunity to speak with the media after or before a game but that it not be mandatory, even for the stars. I care about the game. Pre-game interviews are not the game. Post-game interviews are not the game. Three days of mandatory media appearances before the Super Bowl are definitely not the game.

We get just as much meaningful information when Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, or LeBron James don’t speak to the media as when they do. Let’s enjoy sports for what they are and stop pretending we have a personal connection to the competitors.

Book Review: Virtual Economies from MIT Press

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Title: Virtual Economies

Authors: Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02725-0

Length: 294

Price: $45.00

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Designing playable, let alone interesting, video games is difficult. Massive multiplayer games, especially those that allow trade among players, increase design complexity considerably. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, tweaking prices of individual items or resources to make them more or less accessible to the players and finding the best ways to move money into or out of the game’s economy.

In the face of that complexity, designers must remember their primary goal: earning money for the publisher. Early in Virtual Economies, Lehdonvirta and Castronova lay out the three main objectives of virtual economy design: creating content (both by the producers and the players), attracting and retaining users (attention), and monetizing the game’s virtual resources to create an income stream for the producers. These objectives frame their analysis throughout the book, providing a coherent narrative that emphasizes the importance of designing a system so it generates revenues needed to sustain a game or community.

Unintended Consequences

One source of joy and fear for designers is discovering how their users will creatively exploit the rules of a game to create the experience they want. In fact, the authors point out that designing an inefficient currency might make a game more playable, perhaps because players would develop strategies and tactics to work around the inefficiencies or negotiation and trust issues would lead to interesting player interactions.

You can also try to make virtual money through traditional economic activity. In games, as in any economy, some players search for arbitrage opportunities. When discrepancies arise between the objective value of an item and its perceived value, investors can attempt to make a profit by buying or selling the item. In the stock market, these inefficiencies might arise when a company’s stock is undervalued because investors give too much weight to recent sales data. Investors can buy the stock, hold it until it reaches its proper value, and sell to collect the profits.

Some games offer more straightforward examples, such as allowing users to buy a leather jerkin at a shop in one part of the virtual world and sell it in another region for a significant profit. In either case, players who enjoy this type of activity can take advantage of in-game commercial opportunities.

Faucets and Sinks

Just as players try to acquire game resources, designers must find ways to remove those resources from the game. Maintaining the proper flow of money using macroeconomic policies requires a tricky balancing act between having too much or not enough money in the system. Without income, players can’t buy items they need or desire, but too much money produces in-game inflation that puts even routine purchases out of reach of newer players.

Lehdonvirta and Castronova describe how designers can use money faucets and money sinks to add or remove virtual currency from the game. Money faucets might be as simple as gaining treasure from killing orcs or as complex as arbitrage, while money sinks could include maintenance costs for dwellings, replacing damaged equipment, or securing transport to remote areas.

Virtual Becomes Real

Finally, it’s entirely possible for in-game items and virtual currency to cross over into the real world. Some rare World of Warcraft items command hundreds of dollars on eBay or elsewhere and entire companies in Romania and China make money through “gold mining” (defeating monsters to gain their treasure and selling the gold to other players) or leveling up characters for players who lack either the time or inclination to do it themselves.

Virtual currency can also be used in place of real money for physical transactions, as happened with the Q coin used in Chinese producer Tencent’s game Tencent QQ. A lack of credit cards or easy online payment hampered online commerce in China at the time, so players used Q coins as a medium of exchange. Players transferred Q coins to settle debts or, after the company (at the insistence of the People’s Bank of China) limited the amount that could be transferred at one time, created accounts with standard amounts of Q coins and gave their transaction partners the account’s password.

Conclusions

Virtual Economies combines standard material found in earlier works such as The Economics of Electronic Commerce with new applications told through the eyes of individuals who are both academic analysts and practitioners. Specifically, Lehdonvirta and Castronova provide a substantial overview of traditional economics, such as supply and demand curves and marginal analysis, as well as more recent topics from behavioral economics that help explain why and how individuals deviate from the traditional rational actor model. Add in discussions of what makes for a good currency, how markets function, and macroeconomic issues removes the need for students to buy multiple texts to get the full picture.

Many professors and independent readers will choose to supplement this book’s information with reading packets and online resources, but Virtual Economies could easily stand alone in any context. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

January 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

Introverts at Parties: Part 2

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About two years ago I wrote a quick post on how introverts can survive at parties. It was a good idea but, upon rereading it at the end of 2014, I realize I didn’t include a lot of usable advice. Therefore, in the proud tradition of the internet, I present this listicle:

  • Go with a friend. Partying can be lonely work when you’re there by yourself. If you can, find someone to attend the party/affair/function/whatever with you.
  • Practice your introduction. Neil Gaiman, a famous writer, follows a script. “Hi, my name is Neil. I’m a writer. What do you do?” If it’s a party without name tags or place settings, you could modify that statement to: “Hi, I’m Curt. I’m a writer. How about you?” Learning and remembering names helps establish yourself as a good conversational partner.
  • Arrive a little after the start time and leave after about a third of the guests have departed. Arriving too early is awkward and leaving too soon implies you’re not having a good time, but if you’re tiring and need a break, having a guideline in place can help take the stress off. That said, if you’re truly uncomfortable, make your apologies and head home.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol is a social lubricant, but the first thing it affects is your judgment. It’s also a mood enhancer, meaning that it makes your emotions stronger. If you’re feeling crowded and overwhelmed, consuming alcohol can make it worse. In a similar vein, alcohol removes inhibitions. That might sound like a great thing for an introvert, but remember that if you’re not used to being outgoing you could easily overdo it and make a fool of yourself (see “affects your judgment” above). Feel free to drink a little, but one serving (1 ounce of whiskey, 4 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer) per hour is about right for the average person.
  • Share the wall. Standing with your back to a wall or in a corner provides literal support, but anyone facing you must at least partially block your path forward. If you’re in a one-on-one conversation, turn so you’re both away from the wall and can move as freely as furniture and other guests allow.
  • Spread yourself around a little. As an introvert, I often hoped to find one person to talk with for the rest of the evening. For most party-goers that won’t be possible or desirable, so be ready to move around and don’t take it amiss when the person you love talking to moves on.
  • Thank your conversation partner. My wife and I took ballroom dance classes for about a year and, while we no longer pursue it as a hobby, I do like the practice of thanking your partner when you switch around. Smiling and expressing appreciation reinforces that you’re a pleasant person others will enjoy talking to, which makes starting the next conversation easier.
  • Learn more about your introverted self. The best book I’ve found in living as (or with) an introvert is Quiet, by Susan Cain. I’m not severely introverted, but I found lots of useful insights in her book.

I hope this advice helps. Remember: be open, be honest, and understand we’re all works in progress. If something goes wrong this holiday season, do better next time.

Written by curtisfrye

December 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm