Sunday, July 17, 2016

Suzana Herculano-Houzel's The Human Advantage is a good book with some important insights hidden behind a fairly dry and dense presentation on "how I made these important discoveries." Herculano-Houzel (by her own account) pioneered a technique for determining the number of neurons in brain tissue, and managed (through a fair number of mildly interesting adventures) to bring together samples of many different primate, rodent, and other mammalian brains in order to work out the scaling laws that govern how brains and neuron counts grow with body mass in different tissues across different lineages. She shows a lot of graphs and charts to demonstrate that (with two exceptions) for most mammals, neuron counts scale up with an exponent of .5 with body mass, but in primates, the scaling factor is .8. If neurons have to be added in order to increase intelligence, this means that primates have a huge advantage. In order to get smarter, brains and neuron count have to increase. Larger bodies are necessary in order to sustain a larger brain, and if neuron count or neuron density is the limiting factor in intelligence, then you want to be able to pack more neurons into a denser brain in order not to require an enormous body.

Once Herculano-Houzel has established the basic scaling laws, she delves into the economics of maintaining a sufficiently neuron rich brain. The comparative scaling laws mean that as you look at bigger and bigger species of mammals, the neuron counts increase with the square root of the body mass. As primate species get larger, their neuron count increases much more quickly, which means that for a given body size, a primate is capable of supporting a larger brain than would a mammal. The cross-over point where the two lineages have comparable neuron sizes are with body sizes in the 10 gram range. At any larger size, if you compare a primate with another similar sized mammal, the primate is probably smarter.

There is a separate literature showing the energy requirements for many particular species. Herculano-Houzel used her new numbers on neurons for rodent and primate species to show that there is a direct correlation between the number of neurons and the amount of glucose consumed per minute by the brain. For humans (and others in the Homo lineage, being able to take advantage of the primate scaling laws gives a big boost, but you still have to find a way to ingest sufficient calories to afford the bigger brain.

Humans have two main advantages on this score compared to other primates. Walking on two legs is much more energy efficient than knuckle-walking like other (primarily arboreal) primates or on four legs. This increases the range over which foragers could range, and also freed up hands for gathering and carrying. It's not clear what originally drove bipedalism in the homo line, but it occurs at the same branch point that leads to the massive growth in cranial capacity.

The other big human advantage is cooking. I've seen discussions before that cooking increases the efficiency of digestion, and led to our shorter digestive tract, which allowed us to switch energy resources from digestion to our brains, but Herculano-Houzel points out that even before control of fire, other kinds of preparation (chopping and mashing for example) reduce the energy required for digestion. The anthropological evidence for food preparation goes back much further than the evidence of cooking, and significantly after bipedalism. The earliest evidence of eating meat is swiftly followed by anatomic adaptations to a more efficient diet, which is quickly followed by better tools, and the then bigger brains. Part of the evolutionary adaptation for bigger brains included smaller jaws.

Evidence of tool use and manufacture date back to 3.3 MYA (Million Years Ago). This date was recently pushed back from 2.6 MYA. These tools were simple flint knives. Archaeologists wouldn't count rocks that were used for pounding, since they are impossible to distinguish from unworked rocks. The flint knives would have been useful for cutting up meat, which would make it more digestible, and is necessary in order to survive with smaller jaws. Presumably, eating primitively processed foods had to become habitual before later evolutionary steps that relied on it would have survived in the population. The archaeological evidence gives the following timeline:

  1. 4.4 MYA: bipedalism appears
  2. 3.3 MYA: earliest tool use
  3. 2.5 MYA: eating meat
  4. 2.4 MYA: beginning of the reduction in size of the jaw
  5. 1.9 MYA: smaller gut is clearly present
  6. 1.7 MYA to 300 KYA: The Acheulean hand axe
  7. 1.5 MYA-100 KYA: start of the increase in cranial capacity
  8. 1 MYA: Clear indications of cooking

Another tantalizing clue is that the taste for cooked food may pre-date adoption of the habit. Herculano-Houzel refers to two studies that show that chimpanzees have a very strong preference for the taste of cooked food over raw. I don't whether this has been investigated in other lineages, but if so, (even if it's just the body innately being able to detect foods that are provide big efficiency gains) it provides a boost for any lineage that can figure out how to reliably prepare foods--once you start, it would be an easy habit to keep, providing that the right food sources and tools are accessible.

Earlier, I mentioned that there are two exceptions to the laws regulating the number of neurons in primates and in all other mammals. The first is gorillas, which have brains and neuron counts much closer to those of other mammals rather than those expected of a primate. This fact about gorillas has been throwing off the results of previous researchers, who could only measure brain capacity. They concluded that the rules for primates would be the same as for other mammals, and argued that it was humans that were outliers. Once you plot the detailed data from small and medium primates and compare to mammals, it's easy to see a different trend line applies, and that humans fit on the primate line and gorillas do not. The other exception is elephants. (Herculano-Houzel has an entertaining section about her adventures getting elephant brains to analyze.) Elephants have brains whose size follows the standard scaling rule for mammals. They're huge, and they have huge brains. But their neurons are distributed very differently from all other species. 98% of the neurons are in the cerebellum, while the normal number doesn't get much above 80%. So elephants have big brains and a lot of neurons, but this explains why they're not even smarter than us, presuming neurons in the cerebral cortex are the thing that matters most.

Anyway, the later clues about cooking and bipedalism only added to my reaction that this work may provide an improved answer to the Fermi paradox. Herculano-Houzel doesn't appear to have data about the brains of animals beyond mammals, but if all the mammals outside of primates share a common scaling factor, then that's an indication that it's hard to evolve intelligence given the standard energy budget. It takes a special trick (which didn't have an immediate obviously benefit in the small primates in which it evolved) which was only discovered in one previously obscure branch of the mammal family tree to enable the efficient scaling that allows bodies to grow large enough to support brains supporting enough neurons to enable tool use. This enables (with other accidents like bipedalism and prepared food appearing in the same lineage) the feedback cycle that led to our massive growth in intelligence.

I've never been very worried by the argument that says the Fermi paradox indicates that there's a Great Filter, and if we can't figure out what the hard step was in our past, we should expect to encounter a hurdle in our future that has stopped other species from getting to space. The Human Advantage makes me even more sanguine. It's hard to evolve an intelligent species. There are a lot of happy accidents in our past, and the likely number of extra-terrestrial species in our light cone may be smaller than we thought. It would be nice to see more data showing the scaling laws that apply outside the primates (and in the cetaceans, which she didn't give much data about). I'll be surprised if any of them show divergent scaling progression compared to baseline mammals.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jo Walton's The Just City investigates the nature of justice, while telling an enchanting story involving gods, mortals and robots trying to actually build the Just City hypothesized by Plato. The goddess Pallas Athene brings together 10,000 children and a few hundred adults from many different times and places to found a new city (on the island of Atlantis) according to Plato's prescriptions in The Republic. Plato's main goal in The Republic was to explain the nature of Justice (the words 'Just' and 'Justice' occur more than 150 times on the wikipedia page), so Walton has plenty of room to explore the idea from several different directions.

In order to get infrastructure in place without burdening the new inhabitants (who are supposed to be coddled and trained so they can understand Justice) the goddess brings in robots to build housing and meeting rooms. The robots are kept around to take care of maintenance and other tasks that Plato didn't describe the city's inhabitants as handling. When the historical Socrates (as envisioned by Walton) joins the city, he turns out to be a very inquisitive man. Since the robots display some autonomy, Socrates wonders whether they have individual personalities and whether they're thinking and aware. This leads to even more opportunities for questions about Justice.

Pallas Athene wants to populate the city with willing participants, so the children (exactly half girls and half boys) all are from disadvantaged circumstances. The adults are all people who prayed for a chance to live in Plato's Republic, so (considering how often the book is actually read in the original greek, and in what historical periods) most are men from antiquity, and the women are nearly all from more modern times. This leads to some interesting political factions, and changing of practices as time goes on and the oldest denizens die off first.

Not all of the children are happy to be there, even though all of them agree that their previous lives (most were slaves) were worse. Even so, not having been given a choice rankles with a few, and their reactions are also interesting.

Many of Plato's ideas are reasonably modern, but others are very outdated, like assigning citizens to societal roles according to their metal. The adults of The Just City spend a lot of effort training and testing the children in order to place them appropriately. Many of the adults are uncomfortable with this duty, but they carry it out, and even put their thumbs on the scales as necessary in order to make the numbers come out right according to Plato's very Greek ideas about numerical harmony. When some of the children figure out that test rankings are being adjusted in order to fit pre-defined notions of how many should be in each category, they challenge the adults, and as with everything else that goes on in the city, philosophical discussion and socratic dialogue ensues.

Since there's limited space on the island, procreation must be limited and sexual activity controlled. The children (and adults) find creative ways around the restrictions, but this means discussion of sexual mores and prohibitions are necessary. We hear about everything from rape and unwanted intimacy to Plato's ignorance of issues of women's hygiene. For the most part the adults attempt to do everything according to Plato's prescriptions, but there are several clear gaps in Plato's planning which leads to the need for endless committee meetings (most of which we, mercifully, hear about afterward, rather than having to endure.)

Walton does a wonderful job of presenting these philosophical questions of freedom, choice, and justice through the character's activity and interactions. In the end, we get to know these people who are all striving to be their best, and to create an environment in which justice is available to all, even though humans always have incompatible desires. We even get some satisfying answers to new and old questions and some unresolved issues to ponder on our own.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

To Explain The World: by Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg's To Explain The World provides a very good introduction to the age of scientific discovery. Weinberg's goal is to explain how the early scientists incrementally developed the scientific method as they were learning, developing new theory, and testing their ideas, but I thought the presentation also did an amazing job of explaining the context of the discoveries in a way that made each contribution much more understandable. I've read many histories of science, so few of the foreground facts (who discovered what and when) were new to me, but being reminded about what else was going on at the time, and which people had been talking to (or arguing with) one another gave more context and made it easier to judge the relevance and difficulty of their accomplishments.

Weinberg starts with the ancient greeks, and explains how they were interested in the nature of reality, and our place in the cosmos, but had no concept of comparing their proposed explanations to the world or in any way testing their ideas. In some ways, some of those whose names live on were proposing better solutions than any that would appear for thousands of years, but without demonstrations of their truth or applicability, they wouldn't be influential until rediscovered in later circumstances, where better scientific methods would allow them to take part in a system of understanding.

In the hellenistic period in Egypt after the death of Alexander, individuals were able to figure out that falling objects accelerate, that air is a real substance that can displace water, and to invent effective pumps and accurate water clocks. When they made useful artifacts, their ideas had consequences and were remembered. When they theorized ex nihilo, they were more evanescent and didn't effect many later thinkers. Around this time, Archimedes systematized approaches to the simple machines, and recorded drawings of many useful tools built from screws, ramps, levers, and pulleys.

Starting from their certainty that heavenly bodies must move in circles, Plato asked some of his students what combinations of circular motions could produce the wandering motions of the seven known planets against the starry background that the Greeks could see with their unaided eyes. The pattern of inventing and compounding epicycles would continue until the time of Kepler.

Weinberg's final word on Leibniz and Newton is illustrative of how he analyzes the interactions between scientists, and looks for their influences on one another and on progress generally.

The judgement of contemporary scholars is that Leibniz and Newton had discovered the calculus independently. Newton accomplished this a decade earlier than Leibniz, but Leibniz deserves great credit for publishing his work. In contrast, after his original effort in 1671 to find a publisher for his treatise on calculus, Newton allowed this work to remain hidden until he was forced into the open by the controversy with Leibniz. The decision to go public is generally a critical element in the process of scientific discovery. It represents a judgement by the author that the work is correct and ready to be used by other scientists. For this reason, the credit for a scientific discovery today usually goes to the first to publish. But though Leibniz was the first to publish on calculus, as we shall see it was Newton rather than Leibniz who applied calculus to problems in science. Though, like Descartes, Leibniz was a great mathematics whose philosophical work is much admired, he made no important contributions to natural science.

Weinberg gives credit to the Greeks for discovering and passing on the idea that nature follows consistent rules, and that we can use mathematics to build models which will help us explain and understand them. It wasn't until the 17th century however, that scientists realized that this can be applied pervasively, and actively looked for opportunities to explore new phenomena and describe them mathematically. The final two thirds of the book is a discussion of the conversation that arose among scientists as they investigated, shared observations, and looked for ways to apply fewer and broader explanations to more and more fields.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Ex Urbe on Machiavelli

I just read a five part sequence (Thanks Scott) by Ada Palmer on Machiavelli that is extremely well-written and very effective. Part one gives the context of Machiavelli's work, and explains how important Florence was to him and why that continues to matter to us. Palmer doesn't spend much virtual ink actually justifying Machiavelli as a hero, rather she explains the dire situation Florence was in, and how and why that mattered to Machiavelli.

She ends the first part of the series by giving him as great an accolade as she can imagine. You know the parlor game in which you imagine sending a message back to some past historical figure on their deathbed (not in order to change history, but to tell them that they made a difference)? She would take that opportunity to reassure Machiavelli that his beloved Florence continues to flourish and is held in such high esteem that (by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention) "it is on the list of places [that] all the powers of the Earth have agreed to protect with all their resources."

In the next three or four parts, Palmer explains and justifies her claim that Machiavelli invented modern Political Science and the modern approach to ethics. It's well worth reading.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn



Michael Flynn's Eifelheim is a nice twist on a first-contact story. The contact takes place when insectoid aliens traveling through string theory's seventh folded dimension get stranded on Earth in 1300s medieval Germany. They are a relatively small party, but they have just the right physical form to trigger everyone's prejudices about devils. Flynn does a great job of depicting a highly religious society with a few educated (for the time) leaders.
Unfortunately for the Germans trying to figure out whether to welcome or vilify their visitors, the plague is sweeping through Europe, and it's going to kill most of them. The scenes with the survivors taking care of their loved ones are touching and gruesome. Meanwhile, the aliens are wasting away because earth's biota is missing an essential protein for them. "They eat their fill, but are not nourished".
In a parallel stream, a pair of scientist (living together, but drifting apart) are searching for answers that intersect this distant past. Sharon is trying to piece together a grand-unified theory to explain anomalous measurements, and being inspired by random phrases uttered by Tom. Tom is a sociologist tring to figure out why Eifelheim, an obscure German hill town, was never resettled after the plagues. Of course there are enough clues in obscure historical records to inspire a theory.
Of course many of the villagers are simple superstitious peasants, but Dietrich, their Pastor was educated in Paris and Vienna, and has a more open mind. Dietrich struggles to convince the villagers and the manorial lord that the visitors are "men" by the meaning of the Bible, rather than devils, and then works to convert the visitors to his faith. He has some small successes; apparently the aliens don't recognize superstition when they see it. The linguistic difficulties are enough that it's not always clear when he is speaking literally or metaphorically. Similar issues impede his understanding of the science they understand--both biology to explain the diseases afflicting both parties and astronomy.
The characters are compelling, the science is a plausible stretch, the historicism is infecting, and their travails are affecting. Dietrich treats visiting Jews (escaping from pogroms and rabble afraid that they may have brought the plague, intentionally or not) the same as he does the visitors; all are "men" in God's sight are worthy of respect and an attempt to convince them to act as their best instincts direct them. The final scene, in modern times, left tears in my eyes.




Saturday, January 17, 2015

New York from 7500 Feet at Night

These are some pretty amazing pictures. The photographer is planning to do other cities soon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Confusion about AI

I like Brockman's Edge.org. I think of it as smart people talking to smart people, and I usually find the discussions very interesting. But I was unable to read the recent conversation on the Myth of AI, started by Jaron Lanier, and mostly focussed on Bostrom's Superintelligence. I expect Bostrom's work to be very important, but I haven't found time to read it yet. Superintelligence talks about the likely emergence of super-human intelligences, and what there is to look forward to, as well as what we should worry about. I consider these to be very important issues, though I don't think they're going to make a huge difference in the next 10-20 years. But further out it is indeed going to be crucial that we spend time planning out how to make these intelligences not act in a way that is inimical to our interests. It's not that there's any reason to expect them to be out to get us, it's just that they'll have goals, and if we don't make the right moves ahead of time, we'll be in the way of their achieving their goals.
Anyway, starting out with Lanier, the discussion seemed ill-informed. The opening quote has him saying "The idea that computers are people has a long and storied history." This conflates so many threads that it's hard to know where to start. It's like trying to have a discussion about free speech with someone whose opening point is a complaint about the Supreme Court having decided that "companies are people". As far as I can tell, the Court decided that corporations are one of the ways that people act in concert, and that they don't lose their free speech rights when they use that kind of organizational structure to speak publicly. The fact that this decision applies just as much to giant mega-corporations and to unions as to the two-person public outreach institute that was the actual subject of the case at issue is more due to the Court's belief in consistency.
The point of AI isn't that "computers are people", it's that thinking and acting can be reduced to computational processes (it all comes down to atoms and meat, after all) and so there's no reason to believe that we won't eventually be able to build machines out of silicon that do the same thing, and aren't subject to the same constraints as apply to biological mechanism made out of Carbon.
I was very happy to read Luke Muehlhauser's review (hat tip to Yvain). Luke agrees that the discussants at Edge are confused, and had the patience to analyze some of the misconceptions, and point back to the actual subjects of disagreement.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

License to Work

The Institute for Justice has a new study out comparing the onerous regulations each state puts on entry to various occupations. In the past, they've focused on occupations that are pretty clearly not safety related, so people would see that the goal is fire-walling existing jobs rather than protecting the public. This study focusses on occupations that are favorable to low and medium income people—that is, on entry-level jobs. They've won several cases on occupational freedom for flower arrangers, interior decorators, and tour guides as a few examples.
The tremendous variation between states in how much training, and in the exams required makes it clear that there's no consensus on curriculum and no common core of knowledge across states. By the way, California come out as having the second most onerous licensing regime. People who care about making it easier for low income people to get started should find it easy to oppose California's extensive regulations on everything from landscapers to makeup artists.
Another point that I think IJ ought to make more explicitly is that the public should distrust arguments based on the jobs that would be protected. I think it's commonly the case that entrenched interests easily get popular support by talking about their members who will lose their jobs if some new approach is allowed. IJ's ads should remind us that whenever entrenched interests are able to erect barriers to entry, it means higher prices and less innovation. This applies to restaurants fighting food trucks, teachers fighting charter schools, and taxi cartels fighting new transportation models (Uber and self-driving cars). In each case, we can easily see the incumbents who might lose their jobs, but locking in the existing model means less innovation, and fewer chances to discover more effective ways of teaching, more efficient uses of our roads and ways to reduce the number of cars required, and a larger variety of food and more convenient places to eat.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism shows that, contrary to the accepted viewpoint, fascism came from the left, not the right. Starting a calm discussion about fascism is not an easy task. Most of the time when people use the terms nazi or fascist, the only content is an indication of opprobrium, and this is common enough that it wouldn't be a surprise if most who hear the term don't know much about those who originally adopted the term.

Goldberg shows that the rhetoric of people who called themselves fascists in Europe and the U.S. was quite similar to that of socialists and progressives of the time. The policies that were promoted (if you omit the genocide and racism that were unique to the Nazis, and stick to the political program that was common to Mussolini, Franco, and the Americans who were friendly to the fascist proposals) were socialized medicine, a government retirement program, nationalization of industry to whatever extent required, and letting the government lead.

The term was first turned into a general purpose epithet by the communists, who were upset about the competition they were getting from people with a very similar program to their own. Both were on the left, and urging more government power in service to the common people. The Soviet communists used the term to brand all their opponents regardless of their point of view as "too far right". After the west joined together to fight the Nazis in World War II, it was hard for anyone to defend fascism, even those who were pushing for the same ideas (the progressive ends, not the genocidal one, for the most part.)

Since the press is largely of the left, the public discourse gradually accepted the idea that the fascists were extremists on the right, though their policy goals were not actually much different from those of the communists or progressives.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm pushing this book because it bashes the left. I'm a libertarian, and don't feel more sympathy for the programs of either the modern left or right. See the Advocates for Self Governments' WSPQ to learn more about my ideas if you aren't familiar with them. The point of the book, and the reason it's worth talking about is simply to understand the historical context of modern political discourse.

Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Hitler, and Mussolini used leftist, progressive rhetoric to gain and wield power. I could only find a few examples of dictators who should reasonably be called extreme right-wingers (Pinochet, Papadopoulos, Syngman Rhee). There are many others whose rhetoric was anti-communist, and possibly even pro-business, but their actual rule is usually absolutist, kleptocratic, nepotistic (confiscating businesses and allowing family or friends to run them for their own benefit), but not any more friendly to private enterprise than the leftist dictators.

A large part of the rhetoric of fascism is the idea that the people are unified behind the leaders' favorite program, and that the leaders' main goal is to give the people what they want. A favorite tactic of fascists is to continually manufacture new crises, because these often work to bring people together in support of their goals. Unfortunately, this tactic has been co-opted by leaders from all parties, as our own unending wars on poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism show.

Goldberg describes the fascist bargain with business this way:

The state says to the industrialist, "You may stay in business and own your factories. In the spirit of cooperation and unity, we will even guarantee you profits and a lack of serious competition. In exchange, we expect you to agree with—and help implement—our political agenda." The moral and economic content of the agenda depends on the nature of the regime. [...] It's fine to say that incestuous relationships between corporations and governments are fascistic. The problem comes when you claim that such arrangements are inherently right-wing.

American presidents on the left and right have been making this kind of offer to business for at least several decades. It's more visible with the current president's handling of the health care law, but past administrations of all stripes have made the same kinds of deals with telecomm, banking, and transportation industries. Communists tend to nationalise businesses, while fascists and progressives co-opt them. The latter isn't more right wing than the former.

There's a lot of meat in Liberal Fascism, as long as you won't have an aversive reaction to a calm discussion of the commonalities between the programs of communists and of historical and modern progressives.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Math Awareness Month

Sorry I didn't post about this earlier in the month. I heard about Math Awareness Month at the Gathering for Gardner in Atlanta last month, and bookmarked their site, but didn't realize how awesome it would be. Every day this month, (advent calendar style), the site reveals another treasure. I've read a few of them, but Vi Hart on hexaflexagons is enormous amounts of fun even if you're not a fan of math. Her penultimate presentation on the dangers of flexagons, and the final one on edible HexaMexigons are hilarious. Visit the site every day for the rest of the month and share your favorites.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Obviousness in Software



Bob Purvey (a friend who is both a software engineer and a registered Patent Agent) has written a fairly short paper to explain why the patent office doesn't do a good job screening out "obvious" software patents. He observes that the approach they use for patents on pharmaceuticals seems to do a much better job, and shows how it would apply in software.
One of the reasons this is relevant is that whenever the software industry tries to get the federal government to reform the patent laws (since they're so obviously broken as applied to software), congress is counter-lobbied by the drug companies who argue that patents are crucial to their business model, and without the present system, new drug discovery would whither away. Congress, of course, doesn't understand either industry, so they collect contributions from both sides and do nothing. If the software industry had a more focussed proposal, it would be more likely to get the kind of change that would be useful to it.
Purvey's argument is that when deciding whether an application for a patent on a new drug or medical technique is novel, the examiner is expected to consider whether a Person with Ordinary Skill in the Art (POSITA) would think of that solution, given a suitable description of the problem. If the approach described is one of a handful that the POSITA would think to try, ("obvious to try") then it's obvious enough to be ineligible for a patent. If it's one of a thousand approaches (in the drug business, this is now common in drug discovery) that you'd have to try, with an unknown likelihood of success then it doesn't count as obvious.
The patent office often grants patents on well-known software techniques applied in new contexts. Purvey argues that the "obvious to try" standard would invalidate those patents because software people are trained in abstraction, and it's obvious to all skilled practitioners that previously known techniques are likely to apply in the new context once you describe the problem correctly. The fact that the patent applicant described the problem with non-standard terminology doesn't invalidate the standard tools, and that should be an acceptable argument when suing to invalidate a patent.
As Purvey showed, that's an accepted standard in drug patent trials. A prominent (pharma) case he talked about in the paper hinged on showing that the patent application used non-standard terminology to describe something that was an obvious combination of published techniques. If lawyers attempting to invalidate a patent brought this standard into play more frequently, more patents would be invalidated quickly. And this is an approach that shouldn't have to wait for new action from legislators.




Monday, February 17, 2014

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken is a fascinating exploration of how we could make reality better by adapting various lessons that designers of today's best alternate reality games (ARGs) have learned and applied to make their games more fun. In order to do so, McGonigal has to spend a good amount of time explaining what makes games fun, sticky, and great arenas for training us to be better at collaboration. I found it very informative, since I'm currently helping develop Ingress, a MMO, real-world, ARG. If you're interested in games, or would like your life to be filled with more fun and more purposive action, I recommend the book.

McGonigal starts out by describing several ways in which games are well designed to draw us in and keep us entertained. One of the more important ways in which games keep us in a state of flow is by arranging challenges so we can always be working just at the comfortable edge of our abilities and constantly trying to get better at whatever we're doing. The psychology literature (follow the previous link) has shown that these are crucial to the kind of happiness that is satisfying over the long-term rather than merely momentarily entertaining.

McGonigal describes ARGs as antiescapist games; games you play to get more out of your real life, as opposed to games you play to escape it.

She describes quite a few games she has designed, some for entertaining other people, some to entertain herself or help herself through a tough period in her life, and some to get people to work together on a collective goal. There are games in each of these categories that are worth learning about, and if you're interested, you should read the book. My favorite is probably SuperBetter, which is an approach to self-help disguised as a game.

While in the midst of writing this book, McGonigal had a serious concussion, and struggled to recover. After a month or two of enforced rest that didn't lead to the hoped-for recovery, she took her game design skills and made a game out of doing a little bit of the right kind of retraining every day. Game design taught her that she should set herself a series of goals that were reachable, but not trivial; that she should enlist friends to provide reinforcement, and that she should find ways to reward herself for sticking to the plan, and for every little bit of progress. The right reward structure keeps you coming back for more. She's shared that approach and the rules framework she devised so others with analogous challenges can follow the same path.

Reality is Broken offers 14 relatively concrete Fixes for Reality. These are lessons from the way modern games are designed that can be applied to the real world to make life more fun and business more productive, to help us achieve important goals collectively, and to help us apply the things we learn while playing to our daily lives and relationships. I don't think she hit all 14 out of the park, but probably 80% are worth paying attention to, which is a pretty high achievement level.

Along the way, McGonigal introduced me to new terms for emotions that I recognized immediately, but didn't have words for before. Fiero (from an Italian word for pride) is a term for the feeling you get from triumph over adversity. It's the feeling that first led to end-zone celebrations, though nowadays those are often more about taunting than celebrating. Another useful term is naches, which is a Yiddish word for pride in the accomplishments of those we've coached or mentored. There's a substantial portion of the Ingress player base that gets their rewards by helping other people get better at the game.

Reality is Broken is a very entertaining presentation of the idea that while modern ARGs are packaged and enjoyed as games, they serve a serious purpose in helping us enjoy our real lives, and some of the ways they do so could be usefully applied outside of the world of games.