Index

The Flames of Rebirth: War in Fire Emblem Three Houses

During the summer of 2019 I bought myself a Nintendo switch, and a copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses purely on a whim. I don’t normally buy games at launch, but I needed a first title for my new game system and had never played a fire emblem game before, so I decided to take the plunge. I finished my first play through of the game that fall, and by early 2020 I was working on my first maddening run, the hardest difficulty. Today I’ve completed the game front to back five times. It is easily my favourite single player game in a very long time. Partly because of its interesting, but flawed, game-play, but mostly because it has something interesting to say about conflict that has been in my mind since first playing the game.

(Spoiler warning!!! I’m going to be talking about the ENTIRE three houses story line in detail. If you have any interest in the game stop reading now and play this masterpiece for yourself.)

A game about war.

¡Bias warning!

The main quality that sets Three Houses apart from other war games is the subtle ways it communicates both the horrors and complexities of war. A major issue when designing war games is the limitations of the medium itself. Players want to win, and this simple fact reinforces a very black and white view on warfare that is difficult to get around; there are enemies to defeat, and allies to save. The plot may mess around with the morality of one side or the other, muddy the waters between allies and enemies, by having sympathetic villains, making characters switch sides, questioning the motivations of the hero, or just having the player take side with the villain, but ultimately the final level must have an enemy to overcome and an objective to clear; war is a game with two sides.

At a gameplay level Three Houses is no different. Similar to how most strategy campaigns allow players to pick opposing factions, players in three houses can find themselves on any of four different routes. However, unlike the typical campaign approach, Three Houses hides the branching of the story from the players until absolutely necessary. Players do not need to play through all campaigns in order to get a complete game experience. During the first half of the game all four routes follow an almost identical trajectory. The game only significantly branches the story in the second half. As well, the writers were careful enough to only branch when absolutely necessary. Certain events are shared across routes making it possible to experience the same battles from opposing perspectives. Regardless of which faction the player sides with, they still get to be the hero of their own story, but the interaction between these parallel routes allows us to see biases and complexities that none of the routes individually can express. What we get is a game, fundamentally about war, which is able to express the reality of conflict as more than just two competing sides vying for power.

The titular “Three Houses” refers to the three main student groups at the Officer’s academy. Each house, Blue Lions, Golden Deer, and Black Eagles, represent one of the main political factions on the continent of Fódlan and are each led by one of the games three main protagonists: Dimitri, Claude, and Edelgard. The player character, Byleth a silent protagonist1, is a mercenary recruited by the church of Seiros to teach at their officer’s academy. Early in the game Byleth is given a choice to lead one of these three houses. The player needs to make this choice before any main plot is revealed, and the consequences of this decision isn’t fully appreciated by the player until much later in the game. Each house is made of of eight students and only the mechanical stats and abilities of each ‘unit’ along with a single introductory sentence revealing their personality is revealed to the player before choosing them. The player is encouraged to choose based on little more than mechanical game elements and artistic preference making the decision feel like a character creation screen. However, this choice turns out to be the most consequential decision in the game.

The game is broken into two main parts. The academy phase, or “white clouds”, is a single narrative viewed through the lens of whichever house you choose. Each month, or chapter, the church sends you and your students on a mission that is common across all routes. As the missions progress your class tries prevent an evil ‘Flame Emperor’ and and the loosely associated band of cultists ‘Those who slither in the dark’ from interfering in the affairs of the church. The second half chronicles a war that breaks out over the entire land of Fódlan. There are four possible routes that can be taken depending on the choices made in the first phase; each telling a related but different story2

Mechanics

On no! The creepy librarian was actually evil the whole time.

The game’s mechanics are a big reason why the story of Three Houses works so well. An important part of the fire emblem series as a whole is a mechanic known as permanent death. Unlike other strategy games that might protect playable characters with resurrection items or by returning fallen characters, possibly through an injury mechanic, after the mission is done, dead characters in Three Houses stay dead. Most no longer appear in cinematics, they can no longer be selected for missions, and their story is no longer progressed. Some plot important characters might ‘retreat’ from combat allowing them to fulfill their plot relevant role; however, something terrible inevitably happens to them off screen once the plot no longer needs them. Notoriously, the game can soft lock if the player loses too many of their units, especially on harder difficulties, as they will no longer have the resources to clear later levels. Mechanically, death is this universe has meaning and the plot uses this to great effect.

During the Academy phase the player spends a great deal of time and effort building relationships with the students. Between each monthly mission you can explore the academy campus and talk to nearly every character in the game, who reacts uniquely to the events of the month. You can offer gifts to students, return lost items, share meals, and even invite them to tea parties. All of these activities build support between you and the students. Support offers a small amount of in game benefit by offering bonuses to units with high support when they fight together, but it is mostly used as a mechanic to further the plot. At certain support thresholds the game unlocks support conversations where, in a cut scene, students and faculty members share a little about their life and personal struggles. Importantly, you can interact with students outside your house in this way as well. External students can appear as guest characters in some missions, they can offer up quests for Byleth to complete, and, under certain conditions, can be recruited into your house. During the war phase, all students are forced to pick sides in the oncoming war. All character you recruit side with you, but other character can find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. This allows the later portions of the game to serve up these characters as enemies instead of other faceless minions. Just like how your characters die permanently, characters you face in combat also die when defeated. The act is designed to be emotionally unpleasant, and it is not uncommon to hear of players recruiting as many characters as possible simply so they won’t be forced to kill them later in the game.

To the level designer who put Bernadetta here: I hate you.

Even background characters are treated like this. Rarely do missions require you to go up against nameless bandits, instead enemies are frequently relatives of one of the playable characters. Chapter three has the player put down a rebellion against the church led by Lord Lonato, the adopted father of Ashe a student of the blue lions house. Chapter five has the player fight off bandits, led by Miklan the older brother of Sylvain another member of the blue lions house, who have stolen a hero’s relic. When playing as any other house, these characters are disposable villains, but to both Ashe and Sylvain these are important life changing events that colour the story for the remainder of the game. Likewise, the web of noble houses introduced throughout the game means that generals defeated in the war phase are rarely just the monster of the week, but are instead someone’s relative who might have gotten more screen time if the player had sided with a different faction.

All of this works together to create a world where death matters, which adds necessary emotional weight to the war phase of the game. Edelgard reveals herself to be the Flame Emperor, becomes emperor of Adrestia, and declares war on the church of Seiros at the climax of White Clouds. It is here that the the game loses its silly and naive video game veneer and transforms into something extremely brutal. Few characters escape death, and death itself becomes the primary driver of the story. In this way the game escapes portraying the war as just heroic, but also as the tragedy that it really is.

Edelgard’s War: A war to end war.

Edelgard von Hresvelg born the ninth child of Emperor Ionius IX of the Adrestian Empire. In many ways her story is the story of the Adrestian Empire itself. At a young age she was taken to the Kingdom of Faerghus during a conflict between the emperor and the ruling nobles resulting in a transfer of power away from the Emperor. Upon returning to Adrestia, Edelgard, along with her siblings, found themselves as test subjects in experiments conducted by the cult, Those Who Slither in the Dark, who had at this point deeply embedded themselves in the Adrestian military. They were trying to artificially embed crests, a magical brand that granted the wielder great power, into these children. The emperor, in his much diminished capacity, disproved of these actions, but could do nothing to stop them. Only Edelgard herself survived, making her the de facto heir to the Adrestian throne.

Edelgard stated goals in the war is to overthrow a toxic world order. Her upbringing soured her permanently on the idea of crests which she saw as a physically manifested caste system. Those who have crests wield power, both physical and political. Crest bearers can wield ancient and powerful weapons, known as hero’s relics, while those without crests are driven to madness and transform into giant abominations by those same weapons. Normally crests are inherited genetically, and Fódlan’s noble families are defined by them. The nobles engage in aggressive breading practices in order to create children who bear crests so that they can go on and lead the family into the next generation. Those without crests, even those from the nobility, form a permanent underclass. Noble children without crests often find themselves viewed as lesser to their siblings in the best of cases and frequently outcasts in their own family. Everyone else are commoners and peasants.

Edelgard sets her sights on the church of Seiros because it is the source of stability to the crest system. All crests find their origin in the founding myth of the church Seiros as each crest is linked to the family line of those warriors who aided Seiros in defeating the King of Liberation long ago. It is the church that perpetuates and maintains the entire system. The church sits at the centre of the continent, acts as an intermediary in political disputes between the three ruling powers, and most importantly supports the noble families and their hero relics. This is made clear in chapter five as Miklan, a crestless son of house Gautier, steals the families’ relic. The church’s response is to kill him, retrieve the relic, and return it to house Gautier. Before the system can change, the church must be removed.

Edelgard wishes to see the world free of crests; a world where where those with and without crests can interact as equals. As well she also envisions a world free of the church of Seiros; a world where humans determine their own fate free from the interference of a God. She vowed to use the power that she was unwillingly given to bring about this future; at any cost. However, Edelgard’s war is as much a civil war as it is a foreign war. Destroying the crest system also involves unseating the Adrestian elite just as much as destroying the church, and as one would expect, Edelgard’s coronation also corresponded with the assassination and removal of many of these ‘corrupt’ nobleman. However, this purge has one very notable exception; Lord Arundel.

Lord Arundel is Edelgard’s uncle and the second most powerful man in Adrestia. During Crimson Flower, Edelgard’s route, he represents the Adrestian wing of Those Who Slither in the Dark. Edelgard openly dislikes the cult and many times throughout the game refuse to be associated with them. During chapter eight, after Byleth stops the cult from experimenting on a village full of civilians, Edelgard, disguised as the flame emperor, tries to distance herself from the actions of the cult.

And yet, she never does. During all routes, even her own, the cult are present at nearly every major battle. The death knight, Edelgard’s vassal, is present during most of the cults experiments in the early chapters of the game, they are present in the chapter twelve attack on Garreg Mach in all routes except Crimson Flower, and most notably they are present in Edelgard’s final stand in the Azure Moon route3. In crimson flower, the cult mostly disappears, but Arundel takes their place, and Edelgard seems unwilling or unable to check his power. He is seen as a necessary evil, and while Byleth never works with them directly, they continue to operate in the background unhindered.

“Their power is essential to us at present.”

The most egregious example of the cults relationship with Edelgard happens after the the battle of Arianrhod chapter sixteen. In this chapter Edelgard attacks and executes Cornelia, a kingdom mage, who was involved with forbidden crest magic. Notably, in the Azure moon route, Cornelia betrays the kingdom in favour of the Adrestian Empire. In Crimson Flower, Lord Arundel condemns Edelgard for executing the mage because if, “that were the case, would it not have been better to keep her as an ally?” Implying that she was associated with the cult. Lord Arundel then warns Edelgard to avoid such mistakes in the future. Moments later, the entire fortress and both armies inside are destroyed in heavenly flame, a weapon that in other routes is tied to the cult. Edelgard suspects the attack came from Arundel, but warns both Byleth and Hubert to keep this secret to themselves. In the next chapter she protects Arundel by blaming the destruction of Arianrhod on the church and uses it as further justification to attack the Kingdom capital directly.

“I will be praying. Praying that the Empire will not become another Arianrhod.”

The Crimson Flower route is contentious among the fan-base because it is the shortest route with the least number of missions. It, in many cases, feels lacking and doesn’t do a good job of letting Edelgard tell her own side of the story. Notably the game ends after Seiros, who in a rage transforms into a dragon and sets the kingdom capital and everyone in it on fire, is defeated. The fate of those who slither in the dark, to many disappointed fans, is not resolved. While I believe the story could have been better fleshed out, I do believe the omission of the resolution with the cult is on purpose. Many of the epilogues imply that even though the war is over, Edelgard and Byleth continue to fight an underground war against the cult.

Sadly, this is not a screenshot. Had to retrieve this ending from a fan site here.

It is hard to believe that Arundel would have gone quietly, which implies that this underground war is just a gentle way to label a much larger civil war. But, the bigger question is what a “world where people can rise and fall by their own merits” actually looks like. Edelgard made it clear that her own feelings on the subject were secondary to her actions. Neither her friends, her enemies, nor her own doubts could convince her to part from her chosen path, and anyone who got in her way wound up dead. Her actions tell a story much stronger than her stated goals. Merit, in Edelgard’s world, is just a pseudonym for useful. The cult aren’t allowed to exist because they deserve it, they are ignored because they are useful. It’s doubtful Edelgard could just suddenly turn off such a fundamental part of her personality, even in peacetime. The above epilogue (There are several depending on how the player ships various characters) implies a happy ending, but it is left unsaid how they go about fixing the issues with society beyond just saying that they did. Yet, this is just to prevent reality from spoiling Edelgard getting to be the hero of her own story. She has already set the precedent that her way to a better world is through the corpses of those in her way, and that she is willing to cooperate with evil so long as it’s useful. Why would she ever let anybody undo that victory? So she does create a better world, one where people who agree with Edelgard can prosper, and everybody else likely met the same fate Dimitri did.

Playing to Win: TicTacToe

While attending university, I spent a couple of summers working as a counsellor at various overnight children’s camps. One year, we played a game where each senior counsellor would set up an activity. Each cabin, led by an activity leader, would compete to see who could complete the most activities in a set period of time. The activity I put together required one volunteer from each cabin to challenge me to a game, anything they could come up with. If they beat me, they would get my point. Most of the challenges were things I was doomed to fail at from the start: a cartwheel contest, staring contest, a race to see who could count to ten the fastest. However, the one that stuck with me the most is the one that I shouldn’t have lost at all. A child foolishly challenged me to a game of TicTacToe. After trading ties for a few rounds, something strange happened: I lost.

TicTacToe is the frictionless surface of the game theory world; it’s less a game, and more a theoretical demonstration of what it means for a game to be unwinnable. If two players enter the game, and play perfectly, it is impossible for either player to win; this fact is common knowledge. I knew it, and the child across from me knew it too. Yet, she still won, I still signed her cabin’s activity sheet proving that she won, and I went home knowing that I lost the last game of TicTacToe I would ever play for real stakes.

Discussions about TicTacToe are common in the world of computer programmers. It is the perfect first project for anyone trying to teach themselves game theory and computer AI. A computer sees a game like TicTacToe as little more than an optimization problem: given any particular board state, return the optimal next move. Thus, all discussions around the game are discussions about what constitutes the most optimal move. The most important position, and thus the most discussed, is the opening position. The most common argument goes as follows.

  1. The best move is one that is most likely to result in a win.
  2. Assuming we are playing against a player who plays randomly, the best move is the one that creates the most losing opportunities for the opposing player.
  3. <math>… 7 > 4 …</math>
  4. Therefore, playing in the corner is best.

This discussion might include some scientifically collected statistics of game results pitting various levels of computer AI against each other1, or an admission that the analysis applies only to perfect play and more analysis is necessary to account for imperfect play2. However, the results are always the same. The reader learns some interesting facts about what move is best in certain situations, but is still just as likely to lose to a child when challenged to real stakes: as I did.

The problem is that such discussions don’t really talk about winning at TicTacToe, they are about beating dumber computer programs, which highlights a fundamental difference between how humans and computer approach games and decision making in general: randomness. Human intelligence is utterly incapable of randomness, while artificial intelligence depends almost completely on it3. In TicTacToe, randomness represents the baseline player; it is the dumbest possible computer program we are capable of generating4. However, it does not represent the dumbest possible human strategy. In fact it is not a possible human strategy at all, nor is it a reasonable approximation of one.

To demonstrate, take a look at the following position.

Now, try as hard as you can to place yourself in the body of a ten year old who knows nothing about the game. It’s your turn to play. Where do you move?

A random player is just as likely to play in any open position, but did you pick randomly? If not, why did you place the piece where you did? Did if feel strongest? Do you know it’s strongest? Did it fulfill some sort of pattern in your brain? If you did pick randomly, how did you choose which one was your random choice? Did you simply pick the one that feels the most random?

How humans feel out what position to play in is not a fundamentally part of game theory, but it is of absolute importance when talking about winning at real games. Whatever your answer, hold onto it; we’ll get back to it soon.

Some AI Basics

First let’s go over a simple but important concept quickly: minimax tree search.

In the above position, it’s black’s turn to play. Who wins?

Black wins. Playing in the top left hand corner ends the game with a win. They could, if they want, play somewhere else, but that would allow red to win or force a draw and is a mistake. For the time being we will assume players don’t make those. A game is said to be ‘winning for black’ if it’s black’s turn and they have at least one move that wins.

We have now travelled one turn back in time. It’s red’s turn. Who wins?

Black still wins. Black has two winning moves available to them and red can only block one of them on their turn. Thus this position is still ‘winning for black’ because all of red’s moves transition the game to a position where black has at least one winning move.

Through computer analysis, we can analyze every state of the game starting from winning positions and working backwards to decide who wins in every stage. If the current player has any winning move available to them then the position as a whole is winning for that player. If all of the moves available are losing for them then the position as a whole is losing as well. Anything else is a tie. The reason TicTacToe as a whole is considered an unwinnable game is because none of the moves available at the start of the game are winning.

The following widget will allow you to play TicTacToe against yourself or a computer player (by clicking on the AI button). It includes an option to “show hints”. If selected, each empty positions will gain a highlight: green indicates that the move is winning for the current player, red means losing, and yellow is a tie. Before moving on, I recommend playing around with the widget until you understand this concept thoroughly5.

The Opening Positions

Let’s consider the available opening moves.

The corner is the simplest opener. Either the opponent plays in the centre, or they lose.

The centre opening is a simple 50-50. For computers, half of the available squares are losses. For humans things simplify around corners and edges. All of the corners lead to one outcome, while all of the edges lead to another. The probability of winning is then just the probability that the player you are up against is the type of person who doesn’t play in corners or edges.

The edge opening is the hardest to understand completely. Like centre, the computer player is looking at a solid 50-50. However, there are no easy rules of thumb a human player can use to memorize all safe positions. Instead of just deciding between edges and corners the opponent now has to also consider distance; It’s less obvious which corners and which edges are safe.

If we considering only winning and losing positions, the corner opener certainly seems like the best option. There is only one response, and this simple fact is commonly why it’s considered the best; all other openers simply offer less losing moves. The edge opener feels like the worst, as it is mathematically inferior to the corner opener. Not only is the center square safe, but others are as well. However, corner opener has one profound weakness. The singular correct response for red is also the one square simply begging to have a token placed on it. Earlier, did your inner ten year old play in the centre? I won’t say they did, but I will confidently bet that much more than one in eight of you did. I say this for one main reason; it is the most symmetrical. It has the most triples running through it and therefore it just feels more powerful to anyone aware of the goal of the game.

Consciously or unconsciously humans always have a reason for everything we do, even if that reason is simply to create an subjectively aesthetic pattern. Positions don’t exist in a vacuum, they are always in relationship with each other. In any situation where we don’t know the correct answer, the action we take will still fulfill some internal criteria: maybe we placed our token next to the black tile, maybe across from it6, or maybe we took the answer from some unrelated part of our environment (decision anchoring). Either way, simply counting how many safe squares are available to the opponent is not a good indicator of how good that opener is. We must also take into account how likely it is for a human to know the correct answer, and also how much the wrong answers feel like right answers.

Corner play loses to both of these. Our internal pattern matching system tells us that there are three, not eight, possible replies to opening corner: corners, edges and the centre7. Two of these end the game immediately, meaning a new player, learning the game, will only have to play a maximum three games before completely exhausting the outcomes of each of these replies, assuming they don’t play center immediately just because it feels right. Likewise, it’s easy to remember once learned: centre is strong. Remember that and you will never lose to a corner opener again.

Now this doesn’t mean probabilistic modelling is useless. While we can’t model any particular individual as a random number generator, we can model communities as a whole. Imagine a million children getting asked to play as red after we play corner. Someone is going to play in every tile, but some tiles will get played more than others. What comes out is a probability distribution; the probability that any particular player will be the type of player who plays in certain squares. This is refereed to as a games ‘meta’, a generalization of what a community believes is powerful at any given point in time. Metas are not static, they change and grow as the community changes and grows. They are a weird mix a human intuition and learned behaviour that can change radically depending on the geography, size, common experiences, unwritten rules, and theoretical knowledge of the community as a whole.

Understanding a local meta is vital when picking openers. If we can assume that a community thinks that playing corner is powerful, then they are more likely to know that centre is the right response. In such situations playing centre could be better. Yes there is a higher probability in random play that they will guess right, but that is still better than them just knowing what the right response is, or worse feeling what the right response is.

Complexity

TicTacToe is a game of mistakes, and if we are to find a winning strategy it needs to be one that allows our opposition as many opportunist to make a mistake as possible. Even if someone knows the correct response to an opener, that doesn’t mean they know the correct response for later positions. It’s much hard to memorize the correct responses to a sequence of moves, then the response to a single hard position.

One way to get an idea of how complex an opener is, is to visualize how complicated the resulting game tree becomes. There are thousands of possible games of TicTacToe, so in order to come up with a useful set of positions to visualize, we need to simplify the game by making a few assumptions on what constitutes a reasonable game.

Firstly, let’s assume mostly perfect play.

  1. If a winning move is presented to a player they will always take it.
  2. Players always block a simple win (see below graphic).
  3. Either player will sometimes, at very low probability, pick a losing move. We are primarily interested in states where this can happen.
  4. Once a win is no longer possible, given the above three points, ignore all further variations.
  5. We ignore positions that are just rotations or mirrors images of positions we have already considered8.
No reasonable red player will ever play anything but top edge here.

In the below visualization each node is a key/value pairing. Each key represents an action a player could make; the key “x_1_1” means that the X player places a token at the row one column one square (counting starts at zero). The value associated with the key represents the result of that decision. An integer value means that the game is over: -1 means X has lost, 1 means X has won, and 0 represents a tie. If the game continues a button appears allowing us to reveal the key/value pairs for the next stage of the game.

The centre opener is the least complicated and produces only one real line of play. After the O player responds in any corner, X has only two moves that don’t immediately end the game in a tie. Playing next to their opening only succeeds at creating a route to victory for O and should be avoided. Playing in the opposite corner challenges the O player to play in one more corner before the game ends in a tie. Memorizing this sequence is trivial, even for a small child.

Starting in the corner is a bit better.

After the O player responds in the centre, the X player is given a choice between two lines; both can lead to a win. Playing in the opposite corner mixes things up by forcing the O player to play on an edge before ending the game in a tie. Playing on an opposite edge is a bit more interesting. If the O player is aware of this unusual position they can play in the opposite corner and force the X player to dodge a single bad tile before ending the game in a tie. Everywhere else is a minefield that the O player needs to wade through, at least one position creating a second such minefield. Either way, ties are a lot harder to stumble into than the centre start.

Now the last one; the edge start.

I can’t summarize this position in one paragraph. The most important line, where the O player responds in the centre, alone is about as complicated as the other two openers combined. In fact, it actually contains some of the corner openers more complicated lines. As well, a lot more variations here end at six moves, meaning that the O player is frequently required to play at least three times before ending the game. A relatively deep understanding of the game is necessary to navigate this opener safely. If you know more about the game than your opponent, opening edge is a really good way to offer your opponent plenty of opportunities to screw up.

Conclusion

If we focus only on the perspective of game theory or AI, we get this warped perspective of what it means to play a game. AIs are optimizers, programs who find the optimal action given some rules and contexts. However, few games actually have truly optimal actions or strategies. Much more common are games that seem like they have best strategies, but acting on those strategies can result in a worse performance: the prisoners’ dilemma for example. To play such games well we need more than just theoretical insight into the game itself; we also need a model of our opponent. Focusing on what’s optimal, or by relying on strategies that are optimal given a specific meta, makes us predictable and easy to manipulate. It’s like finding a bug in computer software; once found it can be exploited indefinitely until the code is changed. What is far more powerful is first understanding what moves a player is likely to make and then searching the game for positions that punish that action. If someone is known to play in corners, then any position where a corner is a losing move is optimal. Even better would be to coax them into playing corners more often by priming them to think of corners as being good by opening with a relatively safe move: like the centre.

This is the fate of the corner opener. The fact that it is viewed so favourably means that any somewhat competent opponent is likely to already have studied it, and know the proper responses. Edge play, conversely, can punish people with some knowledge of the game, as such a player is more likely to ignore their gut instinct and ‘shake things up’ by playing in a square they may erroneously think is safe. Likewise, edge play is the only opener that forces a player to consider not just the differences between edges and corners, but also the differences between different corners. However, playing corner isn’t a bad move; it’s a test. When my opponent plays in the corner they are testing my knowledge of the game. They do so knowing that they are not likely to win. However, maybe winning right away isn’t their plan. Maybe I’m being set up for something bigger, an attempt to put my brain into autopilot, an attempt to convince me that TicTacToe is a simple game. Because, after I start believing that, my brain shuts off, they play edge, put me in a position I was unprepared for, and win.

Corner opener might be the best way for a new player to beat another new player, but opening edge is the best opener at higher levels as it is the only opener that forces both players to prove that their knowledge of the game transcends the Dunning-Kruger effect9. Whoever was lying will eventually lose. If neither was lying then, and only then, do we reach perfect play and the game becomes unwinnable.

Warc Extractor

The most popular thing I have ever built is my warc-extractor. I built it while working on a university project that was effectively pulling various datasets from the internet (twitter, internet archive, conventional scrapping etc) and experimenting with various ways to visualize this data. As it was a university project I was expected to upload everything I had built to a public repository, in this case Github.

At the time, there were basically no tools available for dealing with warc files. The only one available was the official warc1 project, which to this day remains completely abandoned. My main goal was to create a script that could extract all the text from a warc file; however, that evolved into a general utility that acted as an “unzip” script for warc files. Once the project finished I uploaded everything to github2 as an archive and expected nothing more to happen.

Interest in the project grew organically, I’ve done nothing to promote it, and has maintained a small but remarkably steady traffic volume for years now; about half a dozen unique visitors / downloads every week for at least seven years. This is a truly enormous amount of people from my perspective. I am genuinely glad that there is a small community out there who finds my tool useful.

I am committed to fixing any bugs that get reported (when I find time), and keeping the tool as accessible and up to date as possible. However, I don’t intend on adding any more features. There are a lot more warc tools floating around these days and I would recommend anyone needing more functionality to try them out.

Just this last month I uploaded the warc-extractor, separate from the rest of ArchiveTools which remains an archive of the original project, to pypi3, so now it can be downloaded using pip.

python3 -m pip install warc-extractor

Once installed, the script can be run similar to how it was run before. To dump all warc files in the current directory just type:

warc-extractor -dump content

Additional help can be found in the built in –help flag as well as at the repository.

I appreciate all the interest and hope that you will continue to find this simple script useful in the future.

A Theory Of Games

My family had a play structure in our back yard that my brothers and I would use to defend against real and imagined invaders. The structure had two floors. The ground floor was a converted sandbox with with four walls and old carpet for flooring. The upper floor had walls on two sides, a ladder on the third, and a slide on the fourth. I spent a lot of time thinking about how one might defend this structure. The ground floor was a deathtrap; while one of the outer walls was chest high and could be used as cover while lobbing water balloons at invaders, it only had one exit which was easy for larger kids to block and force surrender out of smaller kids through liberal use of the garden hose. The top floor; however, was different. The slide was difficult to get up, especially when wet, but easy to go down, and the ladder required whoever was trying to traverse it to drop their weapons momentarily in order to climb. Even better both the ladder and slide were easy escape routes and even the walls could be vaulted over in case of emergency. Thus it was perfectly defensible.

I have a memory of a game we played once using this structure. My brothers and I were defending the fort against aliens, zombies, or possibly something in between, who were attacking us on all sides. One of us covered the slide while another lobbed invisible explosives indiscriminately over the wall into the yard below. I was responsible for protecting the ladder. Now ammunition, even pretend ammunition, is a limited resource, and if the invaders were going to break into our stronghold it was definitely going to be at the ladder. So, just as the mindless slaughtering of unidentifiable alien zombies was about to get boring, something grabbed my leg. I tried as hard as I could to shake it off, but my Super Soaker was out of both real and pretend ammunition and I eventually succumbed to my injuries. The brother on the slide tried to help, but that only gave the zombie aliens an opportunity to scale the slide and take him out as well. My final brother made a valiant last stand before he too succumbed and declared the game over. There was much fun to be had, but also loss. The joy in an activity like this comes from the interaction with others, and thus that joy ends when your older brother goes inside to clean up. That’s how one losses a game of Calvinball. 1

I am a gamer. That means that I choose to dedicate a large portion of my time to both playing and thinking about games. Games to me are a pastime, a means of taking in story, and also a lens through which I can see and understand the world around me. Likewise, my relationship with games has grown and changed as I myself have grown and changed. As a child, games were an avenue of wonder; a way to experience things I couldn’t normally experience. As a teen, games were a convenient distraction; a way to establish limited control over my otherwise uncontrollable life. As a young adult games were a way of measuring personal growth; a lens through which I could see my skills develop and improve. Today, games are just a part of who I am and an important lens through which I understand the world around me.

It’s not easy to talk about what a game is because the word means different things to different people. Games are a thing that children play and adults are supposed to grow out of. Ludwig Wittgenstein uses the term “language-game”2 as a way of characterizing how we use language. Countries frequently engage in “war games” to train and ready their troops even as other commentaries on the subject explicitly exclude war itself from being a game. 3 I operate primarily in the world of technology and under that umbrella games are primarily a business; they are things, products, nouns, something that one entity designs for other entities to consume. There is a lot of literature around what exactly a game is, especially in the world of commercial video games; however, there is no easy consensus to point to as to what games actually are. If we consider the perspective of a game designer, or games as object, we could come up with a list of attributes that distinguishes a game from some other consumer object like a movie. Jesper Juul in his work “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”4 summarizes some of this rhetoric by compiling a general list of qualities that appear in most game definitions: rules, variable outcomes, player effort, players attachment to the outcome, negotiable consequences of outcome, etc. However, I believe this approach fails to convey any real insight into what a game truly is, and worse tends to draw the discussion into pointless debates about what is and isn’t a game. As an example, if games must be voluntary and unproductive as Roger Caillois5 asserts then Warfare must not be a game. However true this statement might be, it uselessly offers no insight into mathematical game theories fascination with warfare, the game industries obsession with warfare, or the simple fact that we simulate and analysis warfare as if it were a game. Likewise, Juul refers to simulation games like Sim City as being “borderline cases” because they contain no predefined objectives; the game never unambiguously declares the player a winner. However, these simulations are still sold, unambiguously, as computer games in computer game markets and are reviewed as if they were games.

The following definition of a game was given by Bernard Suits in his book “The Grasshopper”:

“…to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.”

This definition defines two primary components along with one observation. A game, in Suits eyes, requires two things: rules and a desired state of affairs. A player desires a certain outcome, and the rules limit how that player may bring about that outcome. It is important to suits that the rules prohibit the most efficient means of bringing about this outcome. The fastest way to get to the top of a mountain would be to take a helicopter but the sport of mountain climbing prohibits such an act in favour of the less efficient method of climbing via ones own power. A mountain climber engages in the game of mountain climbing if they wish to arrive at the top of the mountain without using a helicopter. The observation Suits makes is that it is this restriction of the most efficient means that makes the game possible. If one wanted to climb a mountain using only ones own power then using a helicopter would not fulfill that desire, so the game of mountain climbing is invented in order to create a structure that encourages one to engage in the activity they wanted to engage in. As another example, the most efficient means of getting a ball into a hole would be to use ones hands to put the ball into the hole, but this is not what the game of golf is all about. Instead we choose to use a stick to hit a ball from a fixed distance away into the hole. Thus we have voluntarily chosen to use less efficient means, the stick, to bring about a desired state of affairs, balls in a hole. In reality, golf is not about getting balls into holes, it is about getting certain balls into certain holes starting from a fixed distance and using only regulation sticks. Thus, we can’t play golf unless we follow the rules of golf and therefore ‘playing golf’ is only made possible by adherence to its rules.

To Suits, “efficient means” implies that a player can use any means available to bring about their desired state of affairs. If two players simply wanted to overpower each other using any and all means at their disposal, then their struggle wouldn’t be a game. However, Suits explores such a scenario and discovers that the simple act of agreeing on a start time qualifies as an agreement to inefficient means and therefore makes it a game. Under this definition suits would have a hard time disqualifying any human activity from being a game because of the pervasiveness of unwritten social norms acting as a limitation of efficient means.

One way to think of the structure of a game is as being an alternate physics. Chess is a good example of this. Chess pieces are only able to move about the board in set ways. An invisible force, the rules of the game, prevent the bishop from moving in any direction except diagonally in much the same way that gravity prevents us from walking anywhere except along the surface of a large object. The thing that separates the physics of chess from the physics of the real world is that we created the rules of chess, we have to enforce them, and we can change them if we so desire; we did not create the laws of gravity and have no say in its enforcement. Assuming inefficient means, all other games contain some form of alternate physics. Softer game systems, like mountain climbing, are subject to both enforceable rules, like the prohibition of flying, and physical rules, like gravity. The allowed ‘moves’ in a game of mountain climbing are governed primarily by the physical world with some restrictions on technologies that we impose on ourselves. The outcomes of the game are a mix of physical results, “Did the player reach the top of the mountain?”, as well as results requiring a human judge, “Did they use only legal means to do so?” Any particular instance of a game is also impossible to reproduce exactly but some formal record of the event, like a recording or an entry in log book, may stick around. The softest game structures are those of make belief and includes the game of Calvinball I detailed in the introduction. These games exist primarily within the human mind and contain no normalized rule systems whatsoever. One might argue that such games have no structure as the rules, dictated by the mind of a child, can change suddenly and without warning. However, a child always knows when an adult has made an illegal move and thus, at least to their own subjective experience, the structure exists even if it can’t be communicated. The outcome of the game is entirely up to the humans, and, much the dismay of my inner child, an instance of a game is impossible to repeat in any form. Once fun has been had once, it can never happen exactly the same way again.

In all these cases the rules of a game act as a sort of simulation running on some sort of medium: a chessboard, physics, or the mind of a child. Video games fit into this model quite well. They are a simulation somewhere between the chess board and the mountain. Video games are simulations that run on the medium of computer hardware. Computer software is a mathematical structure and thus chess can be represented as a video game. However, most computer simulations are complex enough that unintended side effects are common. In chess it is impossible to make an illegal move; however, bugs and exploits that allow the player to act in unintended ways are nearly unavoidable in all sufficiently complex video games or real life simulations. Thus, like the mountain climber, in competitive video games we generally defer to the computer simulation to determine what actions are allowed, and step in sometimes with human judges when the need arises.

The structure of a game exists to moderate our interaction with the game and with each other through the game. However, a structure alone does not make a game. It is possible to follow all of the rules of golf and still not be playing golf. They rules of golf explicitly state that whoever completes every hole with the least number of strokes is the winner, it has no way of enforcing this goal if the player has no interest in winning. There is nothing in the rules that forbid a player from purposefully hitting a ball away from the goal. Worse, the game has no way of forcing a player to even progress through the game short of skipping the remainder of a hole after a set amount of strokes.

Juul attempts to get around this by by claiming that “Player attachment to the outcome” is a necessary part of the game. Suits definition requires a player to want to “bring about a specific state of affairs”. While superficially similar, these two requirements are not the same. Juul is coming at it from the perspective of a game developer. He wants his players to be attached to the outcomes as dictated by the rules of the game, and by extension the game developer. If a game has a celebratory ending sequence, then the player needs to be attracted by the possibility of experiencing it. However, in Suits definition the player themselves dictates the desired state of affairs. The mountain climber wants to reach the top of the mountain, but they might not care if they get there first. So even though the rules state that the winner is the one who gets there first the player may only be attached to the physical act of making it to the top and care substantially less about their placement.

Suits uses the example of ping pong to explore this point. If two professional ping pong players square off against each other in a competitive match, but mutually decide that winning isn’t important they could instead choose to attempt a long rally and hit the ball back and forth indefinitely. If their purpose is to generate the longest rally possible, we might still call what they are doing a game, just not the game the spectators expected them to play. However, it is important to note that this new game, the ping pong rally, exists within the exact same structure as the ping pong match the spectators expected. There is even a judge trying his best to enforce the rules of a game not being played. The thing that makes it a new game is the players expectations, not the structure.

Juul’s definition requires that, “As a player you agree to be happy if you win the game, unhappy if you loose the game.” The ping pong rally could exist under Juul’s definition, but only if we switched the referee out for one who is actively measuring the length of the rally. Juul assumes that a game can only be a game if there is agreement between the game designers and the game player. This is why under his definition simulation games like Sim City are not fully games because the game designer doesn’t prescribe an outcome for the player to valorize.

How a player approaches a game structure dramatically changes how they experience the game. A player could be “playing to win” meaning that they only take actions that purposefully maximizing the probability of achieving an outcome prescribed by the game. They could be “playing for fun” or “playing casually” meaning that they seek to achieve some sort of experience facilitated by, but separate to, the rules of the game itself. I am reminded of a friend in high school who proudly showed me their Elder Scrolls Morrowind save file in which they were in the process of murdering every NPC in the game; a state of affairs certainly allowed by the rules of the game, but not necessarily intended by the developers.

In my view, the separation between Chess which has a goal enshrined in the rules and Sim City which doesn’t isn’t philosophically important. Both are systems of rules, or alternate physics, through which humans can generate a wide variety of experiences. Commercial games, in whatever medium they appear in, are just game structures, and even though these structures may or may not include some prescribed end state, it is only when a player approaches these game structures with purpose do they actually become games. Indeed if we only look at a game in the way rules intend it to be played we frequently miss out on most of what the game becomes as a social phenomenon. Does the rules of chess say anything about chess grand-masters? About chess tournaments? Or chess clocks? Or the social phenomenon of cheating? No. If one wishes to know anything about chess, pure knowledge of its mathematical structure is only partial knowledge of the game itself. If we start by assuming that a game can only be played by people who’s purpose is to play the game as it is designed, then the only knowledge we will ever achieve is of the machines we designed to play them.

So then, what is a game? Well as mentioned above, no single definition will ever suffice. I fully admit that Juul’s and Suits’s definitions are useful when talking about games in their respective fields but fail as a general definition. However, I have nothing definitive to add. The definition I find most useful for my purposes is that games are a metaphor. Games are an attempt to section off some small portion of our lived experience into a much more understandable reality. We limit means because we have no other way of shrinking the enormity of the real world into something we can understand. We humans create games and define the boundary between what is and is not our game, and we do this to fulfill some purpose that is both uniquely personal and uniquely human.

In short games are small worlds; they are miniature universes that humans create and inhabit whenever the real world becomes to large and complex to understand.

A Mathematical Universe

In Michio Kaku’s book “hyperspace: a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension” Kaku describes a moment that inspired his intellectual journey. “When I was 8 years old, I heard a story that would stay with me for the rest of my life. I remember my schoolteachers telling the class about a great scientist who had just died. They talked about him with great reverence, calling him one of the greatest scientists in all history…. I didn’t understand much of what they were trying to tell us, but what most intrigued me about this man was that he died before he could complete his greatest discovery. They said he spent years on this theory, but he died with his unfinished papers still sitting on his desk.” Kaku credits this mystery as contributing to his desire to pursue physics and a deeper understanding of the world. The man in the story was Albert Einstein and the theory was a unified theory of physics.

Einstein is a household name in physics for good reason. Through the simple act asking questions, and exploring the logical ramifications of those questions no matter how unusual, Einstein was able to reason his way into a new theory of gravity: relativity. The problem was that relativity, regardless of how successful it was as a theory, only explained gravity; the other fundamental forces, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, were not addressed. Einsteins final task, which he never completed, was to unify gravity with these other fundamental forces. To create a theory that accounted for all of the fundamental forces in physics. However, Einstein did not succeed and the search for such a unifying “theory of everything” inspired a generation of physicists, Kaku among them.

We humans exist in a three dimensional world. Objects have height, width and breadth, and to identify an objects location on our planet we would need to identify three number: a latitude, a longitude, and an altitude. We could think of time, duration, existing as a forth dimension, but we can only do that if we accept that it is a different type of dimension that we humans experience separately from the other three. I can rotate an object in three spatial dimension, but time seems to be constant and unchanging. The dominant theory of time prior to Einstein’s relativity Newton’s mechanics. Newton viewed time as an immutable quantity. Time moved forward at the same pace regardless of who, or what, was measuring it. Time was a universal constant and, unlike space, cannot be changed. Relativity changed this. In relativity time isn’t fixed but instead can bend. Einstein’s theory of special relativity postulates that the experience of time is ‘relative’ to how fast an observers is moving. As my speed compared to an observer increases both our experiences of time and space also change. Time, for fast moving travellers, will be observed to be passing slower to their stationary friend; this is known as time dilation. As well, the perceived size of a fast moving traveller will also appear to contract: length contraction. General relativity takes this idea one step further by recognizing that our experience of acceleration and our experience of gravity are fundamentally the same thing. Large masses bend both space and time in a similar fashion. Relativity insists that space and time are not two separate entities that follow two separate sets of rules. Instead, they are a single object, “space-time”, following a single set of rules. Thus Einstein simplified physics by adding a higher dimension.

Kaku’s book introduces this idea from Einstein and follows it through a number of logical expansions. If adding a forth dimension allows us to explain gravity through geometry then maybe we can add even more dimensions to help us to explain the other fundamental forces. Hyperspace is ultimately a book about string theory and all of the various false starts and dead ends physicists took in order to expand Einstein’s four dimensions into the ten that the theory requires. Fundamentally, Kaku is arguing that the laws of physics simplify when viewed from higher dimensions.

Hyperspace was an important early inspiration into my own intellectual journey. The book was my first introduction to physical theory and Kaku’s main argument has stuck with me to this day. Of course, I was a child at the time and my underdeveloped brain didn’t understand anything about the physics or mathematics Kaku was arguing for, instead I connected to the simpler explanations of how higher dimensions can make possible the seemingly impossible.

Imagine a creature whose entire world is a single piece of paper. From the perspective of this creature a we humans can do the impossible. We could bend the paper in on itself causing two ends to touch and allowing the creature to instantly ‘warp’ from one edge of their universe to another. We could also remove this creature from their paper world, ‘turn them over’, and magically transform right into left. Through a simple act of geometry we can permanently disfigure the creature because it is unable to flip itself back due to that act requiring a third dimension. Likewise if two such creatures saw each other, they would only be able to describe the exterior shell or outline of each other, but we can easily describe their internals. This knowledge is trivially gained by us but is functionally unknowable to the two dimensional creatures.

It seems almost trivial now, but the simple idea of a higher dimension beyond the three that we live in changed everything for me. Just by existing it opened up the possibility of two simple truths. The first is that there are things in this world that I am physically incapable of experiencing, like extra dimensions, that exists, and effects me. The second is that even though such a reality is physically beyond me, I can still come to understand it. In a single chapter Kaku taught me a single unknowable truth, that it is possible to visualize a four dimensional cube, and in doing so convinced the younger me that with sufficient education there is no reason why this three dimensional being couldn’t be made to understand the unknowable truth of the universe, even if I can’t experience it for myself.

The problem with such an revelation is that instead of offering up any concrete answers, it merely pointed out a direction through which further inquiry could be made. The unification Kaku sought was clearly a mathematical one. Even though Einstein unified the three dimensions into four dimensions, time still stands alone. If we imagine the second hand on the face of a clock. When the hand is at the twelve all it’s length is along the vertical dimension. As time passes and the hand rotates the length becomes less vertical and more horizontal. As we rotate the second hand its experience of the vertical direction shrinks until it becomes zero once the second hand is fully horizontal. Thus rotation in space can shrink sizes from it’s true size all the way to zero. Time works opposite to this. As an object speeds up, other observers will notice that time appears to slow down and thus expand for the traveller. How limit much time expands is only limited by the speed of light where time becomes infinite. However, the shortest possible measurement of time will always come from the person who is experiencing it. Thus rotation in time can expand sizes from it’s true size all the way to infinity. Time works backwards to space and is therefore still special.

The equations of relativity are written in mathematical language called Riemann geometry. Riemann developed a system for expressing a multitude of these ‘exotic’ or non-spacial geometries using the same common language. Both space and time fit within this paradigm and thus equally expressible as a four dimensional Riemann manifold. However, ‘dimension’ in this context suddenly becomes a distinctly mathematical word that loses a lot of its meaning when taken outside the context within which it was defined. So when Kaku says that the laws of physics simplify at higher dimensions, he is referring to a distinctly mathematical definition of the term that doesn’t have much meaning outside that context. Outside of mathematics time and space are different quantities following different rules. Inside mathematics both space and time are similar objects with slightly different, but still expressible, properties. Unfortunately, it is all to easy to jump to the conclusion that just because some things can be expressed within the same framework, that all things eventually will be as well. Kaku never goes so far as to make any wide sweeping epistemological claims, he simply seeks to unify the fundamental forces of physics and sees dimension as a way to do it. However, others have.

Pythagorus was an ancient Greek philosopher whose name will be familiar to anyone who has studied dimensions. The very formula that describes rotation in a spatial dimension carries his name. The Pythagorean theorem states that the three sides of a right angle triangle are related. That the square of the hypotenuse, the side opposite the right angle, is equal to the sum of the squares on both additional sides: A^2 + B^2 = c^2. As the second hand rotates its experience of the vertical and horizontal dimensions changes according to that formula. If the vertical dimension says that the hand is three centimetres long and the horizontal says it is four then the Pythagorean theorem tells us that its true length is five centimetres. Unfortunately, apart from this theorem very little in modern mathematics is attributed to that man. In fact, very little about Pythagoras’s actual beliefs and teachings are known, or even can be known, for certain today. This is because he wrote nothing down and everything we do know comes to us through other sources; most of which written hundreds or even thousands of years after his death. Worse, even his theorem likely did not come from him. Modern archaeology supplies plenty of evidence that the Pythagorean theorem was known in some form or another in ancient Egypt, a place where folklore states Pythagoras studied. At best he only rediscovered or popularized the theorem. At worst had nothing to do with it. However, what we do know is that Pythagoras, or the pythagoreans, believed that deep down at its core the universe was made out of numbers.

Legends has it that Pythagoras also had a Eureka moment that formed the foundation of his view of the universe. Kitty Furgeson in her book, “Life of Pythagorous” describes this moment as such. While experimenting with the strings of a lyre Pythagorus, “(or someone inspired by pythagorus) discovered that the connections between lyre string length and the human ears are not arbitrary or accidental. The ratios that underlie musical harmony make sense in a remarkably simple way. In a flash of extraordinary clarity, the Pythagorean found that there is pattern and order hidden behind the apparent variety and confusion of nature, and that it is possible to understand it through numbers.” The details of this statement are of course up for debate. Iamblicus, an important early biographer of Pythagoras, claims that Pythagoras came to this understanding while listening to the sounds of a hammer strike an anvil not while playing with a lyre. As well, the modern reader won’t find much enlightenment in what fragments we do have of Pythagoras’ metaphysics. Most of it sounds like numerology. The Pythagoreans believed in a theory of music that governed the heavens. The strings on a Lyre could be tuned in an unlimited number of ways, but it was only when they were tuned to the integer ratios that it could generate harmony, the same is true for the heavens. Pythagoras believed that each celestial body orbited a “central fire” and produced a sound as it travelled. Each heavenly body produced a different sound and together produced a harmony. Ten was an important number to Pythagoras because it represented perfection in his system. One can create a perfect triangle by starting with a base of four round balls and stacking three, then two, and finally a single ball on top of it for a total of ten balls. Likewise, Pythagoras needed for there to be exactly ten celestial objects orbiting the ‘inner fire’: the sun, the moon, the earth, five planets, the stars, and a mysterious counter earth that was never visible because it was always hidden on the other side of the inner fire. This counter earth existed not because he had observed it, but because his model wouldn’t make sense without it.

The details of what Pythagoras actually believed are eternally up for debate; we can’t really know anything for certain. But his impact was undoubtedly profound. Plato’s, inspired by his conversations with Pythagorean followers, included a detailed geometric view of the cosmos in his Timaeus. In this model the world was literally geometry and made up of atomic triangles. Each of the four basic elements, water, earth, fire, and air, gain their properties through the configuration of the triangles within them, and the world as a whole comes out of the interaction of these elements. Modern readers might see this construction as nonsense, but if we remember that the foundation of modern mathematics, Euclid’s elements, had not yet been written its much easier to see that the geometric view of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus is at least an attempt to explore the ramifications of a mathematical universe. As mathematics has developed so too have the mathematical models that describe our universe. There is no shortage of such models we could explore. Some are absurd, like Kepler’s early model of the solar system which used platonic solids to describe the orbits of the planets, some are useful, like Brahe’s geocentric model, and some would fundamentally alter how generations of scientists view the universe, like Newton’s laws of gravity. So the question remains, is there a correct fundamental model of the universe?

Physicist Max Tegmark takes this idea to its ultimate extreme in his book, “Our Mathematical Universe” where he argues that the universe isn’t just described by a mathematical model, it is a mathematical object. He calls this the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. “If the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is correct, then our Universe is a mathematical structure, and from its description, an infinity intelligent mathematician should be able to derive all these physical theories.”

Fundamentally, this is the question that stuck with me into adulthood. Does such a theory exist? I don’t mean does a unified theory of the fundamental physical forces exist? For all I know Tegmark’s confidence that the we will be printing t-shirts with the equations of a a unified theory of physical in our lifetime could be correct, but that question doesn’t interest me. Instead, what I’m asking is something more profound. Is there a unified theory of everything. Can a sufficiently powerful, infinite dimensional, creature derive our universe, everything inside it, and everything it is capable of becoming. Thinking back to my childhood both myself and Pythagoras had a similar moment. Reading Kaku gave me a brief moment of enlightenment where I realized that part of the world isn’t random. However, unlike Pythagoras my religious background prevented me from taking the next step. Just because something is understandable doesn’t imply that everything is.

The problem with the mathematical universe hypothesis, and the search for a “unified theory of everything” in general is that it is impossible to argue against. Sure Pythagorus’ model containing exactly ten celestial bodies is wrong, Newton’s theory describing a static and universal time is wrong, Einstein’s failure to account for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces implies that his theory is at best incomplete, and string theories inability to predict any experimental outcome implies that it probably isn’t the final theory either. Yet, none of these precludes the idea that a correct and perfect mathematical model of the universe doesn’t exist. There’s just is no way of proving a negative. Worse, the fact that each of these models improves on the previous model implies some sort of forward momentum. Each scientific breakthrough doesn’t invalidate the knowledge gained from the previous model, it merely casts that knowledge from a new perspective, a higher dimension, that let’s us see old knowledge along with new knowledge in a common framework. So how do we account for the success of the mathematical sciences without admitting that at some level the universe is mathematical?

What is mathematics if not the language of structure. If I say that 1 + 1 = 2, I am asserting a relationship between these two objects that offers clues as to the structure that these objects live in. If this statement is only true sometimes, or in some contexts, then that implies that the rules governing these objects still dictate that 1 + 1 = 2 in such contexts. Thus our knowledge might not be universal, but it still hints at a fundamental nature we still know something about. To even begin searching for knowledge we must first admit that such a thing, a stable foundation, exists at all. If the universe exists then it must be true to its own nature. If the universe changes it is not because the nature of the universe has changed, it is because the nature of the universe is to change. If we assume that the the universe is true to its own nature and that it follows its own rules then mathematics inevitably leaks out.

At this juncture we have not built a foundation strong enough to even explore that assumption in full. However, what we can do is explore what it means for something to follow its own rules and to be mathematical. This is where my own personal journey began. If mathematics can generate truth, then what does a mathematical universe look like? What, if anything, can math tell us about itself.

A Reintroduction to Truth

(Note: This is a rehash of a much earlier blog post.)

I discovered physics at a relatively young age and fondly remember reading every book I could find on the subject at the local library; quantum physics, higher dimensions, multiple worlds: this stuff fascinated me to an extent I still can’t fully communicate. I will admit that I didn’t understand the vast majority of what I read; although, at the time understanding wasn’t the point. Instead, I was simply enamoured with the idea of a deeper truth to the universe. The very idea that the world was understandable and that some people held access to it was appealing. I wished more than anything else to be one of those people someday.

I entered my undergraduate degree with the goal of becoming a physicist, but I didn’t make it very far. I got to third year before finally failing a course and giving up. I can see now that that I didn’t really fit into the physics world for two primary reasons. The first was that I misunderstood what physics was about. I thought it would be an opportunity to explore and understand the deeper realities of our world, but instead I found myself involved with a community interested only in creating rigorous mathematical models, concocting experiments to test those models, and modifying the models based on the experimental feedback. The entire undergraduate degree being nothing more than a desperate attempt to catch the student up on on hundreds of years of mathematical models. No explanation about why these models are important beyond ‘it accurately predict the outcome of experiments’ was offered or required.

This is not a point of criticism. I accept that teaching is hard and I have no interest in starting a conversation on how to do it better as it really was the second problem that prevented me from working through the first. The year was 2008 and a man by the name of Christopher Hitchens had only the previous year published an influential book by the name of “God is not great”. That book, along with others published around that time, created a movement I would come to know as ‘new atheism’ that was founded on the idea that humans must evolve beyond the need for religion in order to progress. These ideas circulated wildly among the undergraduate physics society during my degree, and created a problem for me specifically because I was still working through my own beliefs as a person who identified as an Evangelical Christian.

My father would later describe the church I attended growing up as a, “church people came to when they were fed up with their other churches”. Because of this it is difficult to categorize the exact theology I was taught. I was exposed to a wide variety of theologies and they all competed equally for my attention. I remember honest conversation about the nature of God, the question of evil, and actual struggles to understand the tragedies that the bible chronicles. Likewise I also remember being brought into a dark room solemnly taught the ‘truth’ of revelation while having the entire timeline of the apocalypse laid out before me. I had conversations about determinism, creation, eschatology and the many different ways Christians around the world express their belief. Even though I was introduced to much fundamentalist doctrine, I never became a fundamentalist, and indeed never viewed my religion as set in stone, unchanging, or inerrant in any way. If anything, this variety of Christian religious experiences only reinforced in me the idea that God is mysterious; that humans are flawed beings trying in vain to express something that they can’t fully comprehend. I wasn’t blind to the evils in my religion; there were plenty of false prophets, hypocrites, and manipulators. Yet, those too only demonstrated what I now believe to be the bible’s strongest and most consistent message: that whenever humans believed themselves to be closest to God they were instead farthest from him. I was well aware of the crimes of the church, and had already spent most of my life passively taking in conversations about the relationship between these crimes, humanity, and religion as a whole. So it was a little jarring being thrust into a social scene who, having had none of these conversations, viewed religion as at best ridiculous and at worst an intellectual disease from which humanity needed saving.

So what was the replacement supposed to be? Well it was science of course, and in the physics world science is just another word for mathematics. Over the course of three years in an undergraduate physics degree I took five courses in calculus, two courses in linear algebra, two courses in complex numbers, and several others I don’t care to list out. The physics courses made even less sense because they were also mathematical courses; they just didn’t begin with a list of axioms and were therefore more confused about what transformations were valid and which were not. We had one token experimental course where we actually ran some of the experiments that physics claimed as its source of truth, but the labs we used were so underfunded and the technicians, us, were so poorly trained that our data never aligned with accepted theory. The reports were always a desperate attempt derive a plausible sounding narrative out of the random data our experiments generated. All in an attempt to impress whoever marked our work.

The worst part for me was that everything seemed so familiar. A preacher in front of the congregation giving long lectures justifying a conclusion I didn’t understand out of a data source I couldn’t understand. The only difference being that lecturers had whiteboards and preachers had pulpits. These people seemed just as certain in the inerrancy of mathematics to speak truth about the universe, as my religious friends were in the inerrancy of the bible to do the same. So when I saw my peers talking about the ‘obviousness’ of the nonexistence of God, I couldn’t help but compare them to the other side who talked about the ‘obviousness’ of his existence. It was a debate between people who were so certain that they themselves were correct that they couldn’t possible see the world through each others eyes. Indeed, their certainty required that they never try.

Reading Hitchens today only reinforced my suspicions back then. ‘God is not great’ is a damning catalogue of religions many crimes, but its argument against religion relies heavily on the readers predisposition to hate religion. He describes in great deal how religion has been, and continues to be, a contributor to warfare, a tool of political control, and a shield protecting histories most disgusting criminals. Yet, the conclusion implied in the books subtitle “how religion ruins everything” that we would be better off without religion isn’t really argued so much as assumed. For example when describing the barbaric practice of female circumcision Hitchens points out that, “No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood and therefore to its survival if the foul practice was not holy and sanctified.” Here the subtext is obvious, if religion couldn’t be used as a justification for this horrific attack on women, then the act wouldn’t have happened. He doesn’t go into detail, but the whole statement hinges on a deeply evolutionary argument. Women are necessary for our species to reproduce, so therefore an attack on women is in essence an attack on our ability to reproduce. This behaviour cannot come from an evolutionary standpoint and is therefore not natural. So such an attack can only be possible if something else, something evil, was overriding our fundamentally good nature.

But is this really true? Does removing the justification for a horrific act suddenly prevent the act itself? Unfortunately, Hitchens makes an assumption here that is prevalent in western philosophy; that humans are rational animals. In this context rationality means that we are always acting in such a way as to maximize some internal good. We have an internal model of how we think the world works, we use that model to weigh actions, and then we act on the results. If humans worked this way then yes it would be logical to conclude that getting rid of an incorrect model would force us to seek out a better model, and by extension act better. However, what if the opposite is true? What if our nature is not rational and we instead act first and only search for justification later. If this were the case then getting rid of religion accomplishes nothing. The act would still happen and the culprit would simply corrupt something else to act as justification for the action. This is a point that Hichens all but concedes when he tries to explain away the horrors of the ‘secular’ totalitarian government in Soviet Russia, “Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.”

What about culture? The line between religion, culture, and ethnicity is something Hitchens never even bothers to address. If we accept that religion is evil then how do we excise it without stripping away a peoples’ cultural identity? While discussing the ethnic and religious violence in Yugoslavia he comments that, “Elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially along the river Drina, whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed “ethnic cleansing.” In point of fact, “religious cleansing” would have been nearer the mark.” The distinction between ethnic and religious is of fundamental importance to his argument and yet he fails to elaborate beyond this snide remark. Yet, just as easily as Hitchen’s can turn the word ethnic into religious the opposite is also true. When discussing Martin Luther King he says that, “the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories. His most imperative preaching was that of nonviolence. In his version of the story, there are no savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings. Nor are there cruel commandments about the stoning of children and the burning of witches…. If the population had been raised from its mother’s knee to hear the story of Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the long wearying dangerous journey of the Greeks to their triumphant view of the sea, that allegory might have done just as well. As it was, though, the “Good Book” was the only point of reference that everybody had in common.”

Hitchens has already concluded that religion is evil, and so the very fact that King ignored the problematic parts of the passage somehow saves him from being ‘religious’. Instead, any goodness that originated from King must have came from something else. In this case that something else is language and folktales, an important component of what we would call ‘ethnicity’. The people King was talking to were ethnically Christian. The bible is something they all knew, and when King attached his ideas to something his audience understood he had a better chance of getting those ideas across. In essence, King’s message wasn’t important because of its religious affiliation, it was important because of its ethnic affiliation.

This type of slipper definition is precisely what stood out to me in undergrad, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time. These definitions begin with an absolute statement, “Religion ruins everything”, and when faced with a situation where religion is not ruining everything they must immediately explain why the religion is in fact not a religion. Once again, this is all too familiar because this style of argument is the very glue that holds fundamentalist Christianity together. This is the logic that creates what Hitchens is so desperately trying to destroy.

Evangelicalism specifically focuses on the gospel of the ‘good news’. It is important that a Christian spread the good news of Christ because we are actively making the lives of those who hear it better. Books like, “Run Baby Run” by Nicky Cruz reinforce this message by painting the secular world as dark and grim. That world is full of gangs, drugs, unfulfilling sex, and the most extreme and grotesque forms of violence. The way out of this world is through the message of Jesus Christ. Likewise, by definition none of these things can exist within the Evangelical church as Christians leading better lives is core to the doctrine. We are then stuck in a situation where there is a fundamental disagreement about who gets to be religious. Hitchens arguing that good Christians are actually humanists, and Evangelicals arguing that bad Christians aren’t actually Christian. Of course, nobody agrees on what is good and what is bad and so nothing is ever decided. Both sides are in effect the same. The argument is simply western thought fighting over its own details. Concepts important to this discussion, such as the distinction between religion and ethnicity or whether God exists in a literal sense, just don’t mean as much in any other context.

All of this leads one way or another to a kind of negative morality. A position where we are focused entirely on the eradication of evil in order to allow good to flourish. If religion ruins everything then by getting rid of it we allow ourselves to return to the rational state it removed us from. If God is good and has rescued us from our sins, then we must destroy these sins so that it can’t capture us again. In both cases any violence that erupts is a necessary evil that transitions us into a better world. Another important idea in western thought is the inevitable triumph of good over evil. The trope of ‘saving the world’ in one heroic act of justified violence powers a majority of our popular media. The good guy always defeats the villain. The problem though is that the fight between ‘good and evil’ never ends. Once the evil bad is destroyed there is always an eviler bad to follow. Sooner or later the ‘war to end all wars’ simply becomes the ‘previous war to end all wars’. There has never been any scientific evidence that goodness is inevitable.

Atheism was never an alternative to my own religion. At the time it was obvious to me that jumping from one to the other only replaced one idol with another. I was taught that Christ and his word are truth, and Hitchens believes that science is truth. Yet, what truth was to both didn’t differ, it was a system founded on a single inerrant principle that denied the existence of anything not demonstrable through that system. Yet, here I was seeing both systems and finding both to be equally fascinating and equally flawed. I do not disagree with those who question religion. God doesn’t have to exist, science is a better explanation as to how we got here, and holding a thousands year old document as a source of inerrant truth is hard to defend. Yet, it wasn’t any triumph of human rationality that got me to doubt my own religious convictions, instead it was the idea of negative morality. Why was it that a religion founded on the ‘good news’ of Christ rescuing us from our own corruption was so focused on categorizing said corruption? If God is so powerful, why are we so afraid of evil? Why must the fear of hell power more of my decisions than the love of God? If someone is happy and content with their lives, why must I conclude that they are faking it if they aren’t ashamed of what I am personally labelling as their sin? And the same argument works against people like Hitchens. Why is he so focused on destroying something that he argues does not exist? Why must he continue to believe that religion holds no value when there are clearly billions of people worldwide who are continually attracted to it?

What does it mean for a belief to be true? For that matter what does it even mean for anything to be true? Looking back on all those physics books I read as a child I cannot deny that what drew me to them is the promise of objective reality. There was something out there, independent of me, it had structure, it had order, and it was beautiful. Back then, as today, I believed in objective reality, in an objective truth. I believed that truth wasn’t a personal matter, it wasn’t unique to me and didn’t change from person to person. I believed this because it had to be true in order for my own experiences to make sense. If I were somehow capable of making something true for myself then the world would be a fundamentally different place: it would be one where I understood why the people around me reacted to me the way that they did.

One thing both physics and religion had in common was that they both, at least in their teachings, actively encouraged me to seek truth on my own. The preachers implored me to read the bible and pray to God for wisdom, while the scientists encouraged experimentation as those were repeatable and not beholden to the whims of an individual. What does one do when their personal truth is suspect, but the alternatives are no better? How does one rectify a belief in an objective absolute truth with the realization that my own understanding of that objective reality is clouded by the things that I believe?

Well, I didn’t have an answer back then, and I won’t pretend to have one now. However, the journey I’ve been on since deciding I wanted to find out has been an adventure and I’d like to share it with anybody willing to listen.

Re: Barry Bonds Without a Bat

So, first a disclaimer: I know very little about actual baseball.

I do, however, love games, numbers, strategy, and game theory. So when Chart Party (a recurring feature on the sports YouTube channel SB Nation hosted by Jon Bois) ran the numbers on what would happen if Barry Bonds, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, played without a bat, I was intrigued. The following is my response to the question posed at the end of the video. I suggest watching it first before continuing.

To answer the first question: yes, I agree Bois’ methodology is correct, and the result is a little bit puzzling. How can the performance of a great batter not be affected by the removal of his bat? To answer that, we will need to abstract a little bit away from baseball as a holistic game and just talk about the interaction between the batter and the pitcher.

In baseball, the pitch qualifies as a sub-game, described in the following payout matrix:

Swing No swing
Strike ???? -1/3
Ball -1/3 1/4

There are two players, the batter and the pitcher, and each has two actions that they could perform. The pitcher acts first and attempts to throw either a ball or a strike; the batter must react to this decision. If a ball is thrown and the batter does not swing, then the batter scores a “ball”, and doing so four times results in a free walk to first base. If the pitcher throws a strike, the batter must swing, otherwise the batter scores a strike; three of these results in a strike-out. Swinging at a ball also results in a strike. The remaining situation involves the entire rest of the team and is hard to assign a value to so we will ignore it for the time being.

Now, in the Chart Party experiment, Bois modeled the pitcher as a random number generator. This may seem unfair, because common sense says that professional players shouldn’t be throwing balls randomly; however, this is actually a good way of modeling high-level play. A professional pitcher pitching to a low-level player, like me, would quickly adapt to my inability to hit the ball and strike me out every time. Likewise, a professional batter would just as quickly adapt to my inability to throw a ball and would either launch one out of the park or take the free walk. However, things change when two professional players play each other. In this case, both players would notice and adapt to any pattern exhibited by the other; therefore, the best strategy is to not exhibit any patterns at all, which is the definition of random.

(Note: since the batter reacts to the pitcher, the batter doesn’t need to swing randomly, only avoid indicating to the pitcher what the batter plans on swinging at.)

Finally, we are only interested in ‘On Base Percentage’ (OBP) or the amount of times the batter leaves home base successfully. Runs don’t matter and for this simulation getting to first base is just as good as hitting a home run. So, with all these assumptions and simplifications in place, the pitching sub-game becomes extremely easy to model mathematically. If the batter never swings, we are left with a simple binomial distribution: six pitches at a probability of throwing a ball at 58.7% (as reported in the video). We are interested in the probability of a game resulting in at least 4 balls. So, if we take a quick calculator break….

https://stattrek.com/online-calculator/binomial.aspx

we arrive at a probability of 51.7%. In terms of baseball, that would be an OBP of 0.517.

Now, this number doesn’t include intentional walks and hit by pitches, which the video sadly lumps together with normal walks, so I cannot accurately calculate their effect. However, the video does report Bonds’ total walk rate to be 0.381 and if even a quarter of those are intentional walks (not a difficult assumption, given the background in the video) that would easily push his OBP to the reported value of 0.608.

The above graph demonstrates the relationship between a random pitcher, their probability of throwing a ball, and the probability of being walked, assuming the batter doesn’t swing. In a meta where pitchers threw balls less than 30% of the time, the effect on the batter’s OBP is minimal. Not swinging would result in getting to base only slightly more than 5% of the time. However, the numbers start changing quickly in metas with higher probabilities. A single 10% jump from 30% to 40% triples the expected OBP of the batter, while each of the next two 10% jumps both double it again. Suffice it to say, tiny changes in the pitching meta can have a massive impact on the expected OBP of the batter.

So where does the batter’s skill come into this?

Allowing the batter to start swinging would likely have a negative effect on their OBP. The simple fact that a batter can swing at balls will always negatively impact their score. Obviously, the better the batter is, the less this effect will be, but unless they play perfectly, inclusion of this option will always drop their OBP by at least a small amount. As noted, swinging at strikes has several possible outcomes. The batter can swing and get a strike, swing and not make it to base, or swing and make it to base. So the outcome of the rest of the entire game will have a variable effect depending on the skill of the team.

For the case of Bonds, we know the outcome. Swinging a bat had no effect on his overall OBP, which means he successfully swung at enough strikes to counteract the negative effect of swinging at balls. Seeing as he is one of the greatest batters of all time, I would assume that this is the upper limit of batting performance and lesser batters would perform a lot worse. In terms of this experiment, I hypothesize–although cannot prove– that for most regular batters, taking away their bat would actually improve their OBP.

Is this bad for baseball? No. In the real world, if Bonds showed up without a bat the pitcher would adapt quickly and strike him out; it’s a dumb strategy. What this is though is a good indicator that OBP is a terrible statistic, and likely shouldn’t be used as a proxy for a batter’s skill.

The internet is too big.

On March 26 2019, the European union passed the copyright directive — a new, comprehensive set of rules that are supposed move the European copyright laws, written before the internet was a thing, into the digital age. The directive includes two controversial clauses that, depending on who you ask, will either save the internet or ruin it:

  • Article 11 is a provision that requires sites that posts links with snippets to pay the site that they are linking to.
  • Article 17 (AKA article 13) makes all websites legally accountable for all content that gets posted on them, specifically copyrighted content

It is Article 17 that some view as the clause that will effectively split the western internet in two, because of its incompatibility with its American counterpart. The DMCA (Digital Millennial Copyright Act) notoriously includes a “safe-harbour” clause, which recognizes sites as a neutral third party. If a user uploads copyrighted content, the site should take the content down once it is informed and the resulting dispute is to be resolved between the user and the copyright holder. This discrepancy between European law and American law will make it very difficult for a website to be legal in both jurisdictions. It’s hard to be a platform like youtube that allows everyone to upload whatever they want, when you are legally liable for everything they upload.

From some perspectives, this is a disaster. One of the primary philosophies underlying the internet is the belief that it should operate as a single unified network that connects the entire world. Yet already that philosophy is under siege by the Chinese government: they have created a separate network that operates on vastly different rules than the internet(s) that North Americans and Europeans are familiar with. Three Internets is entirely too many, and only further paves the way for further subdivision. A younger version of me would be up in arms about this. However, something has happened to me between then and now, and the current version of me is finding it harder and harder to care. What I wish to share today is why.

For me, it wasn’t all that long ago when the internet was new and wonderful. I am old enough to remember time before the internet, but I was also still young enough to fall head-first into the techno-utopianism that came with it. It is the defining technology that separated my generation from my parents’ generation, and I just knew that it was going to change the world for the better. See, the running theory was that information was both a universal good as well as a basic human right. Information allows us to learn, explore, collaborate, and create. With access to limitless information we could become better informed, more productive, and more educated members of society. Unfortunately, information is also fundamentally operated and controlled by those in positions of power: governments, large corporations, the rich, basically everyone interested in exploiting the people around them for profit (or votes, which often translates to the same thing). In order for an idea to ever see the light of day you must first ask permission of the publishing platform who controls all access to a potential audience. The internet was supposed to fix this by removing the need for a publisher; instead, users could now find each other directly. So I, and the forums I followed, wanted a free and open internet. Specifically one where information flow was not dictated by the financial whims of a separate for-profit organization, or a government. Unfortunately, it turns out this view, as is so many, is incomplete.

The internet is designed from the ground up to be global. HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), the internet protocol most strongly associated with the the web, models all content as a document. After I upload a document it gets assigned a URL (universal resource locator), and anyone with that URL can request the document and download it. After that, an exact copy of the document has been made and the user is free to modify or re-upload it as they see fit. Other protocols, like email, allows information to move in the other direction. I can send an email to whoever in the world I want, and anyone in the world can send an email to me. The internet is intentionally global, public, and free. This fact did not go unnoticed by the world’s advertisers and they promptly invented spam email, the mathematics of which is horrifying.

Let’s pretend that I am an advertiser and I want to sell pills. Normally, the very act of trying to convince someone to buy my pills costs money. So I am incentivized to make each attempt as likely to succeed as possible. This is because developing the product and the pitch is a fixed cost: I only have to pay it once. However, pitching a product is equally expensive on every person I try it on. So it’s worth it to spend money improving the product so that the pitch becomes less expensive.

But what happens if the pitch becomes free? Now my pitch need only be just good enough that someone on the planet will buy it and every other dollar spent on development is wasted. This is the case with the internet. On the internet there is no cost difference between sending an email to one person or a billion. So the cheaper the message you send and the shittier the product you make, the more profitable it is. Thus spam email was formed, along with clickbait, ad farms, shovelware games, generic inspirational websites, thoughtless blogs, and drop-shipping marketplaces. As long as someone, anyone, is convinced, any further effort you put into your product is like shoveling money into a black hole.

No business venture is so insane that somebody won’t fund it, no product so crappy that someone won’t buy it, and everybody else gets to drown in the billions of individuals screaming into the abyss looking for their audience.

In my younger years, it was easy to ignore the email spam problem because it was hard to imagine someone actually buying penis enlargement pills from an email that doesn’t even bother to spell penis correctly. This assumption is primarily because of a second assumption that forms the core of technological utopianism: that humans are rational animals. Deep down, we don’t want to believe that someone will fall for a scam being operated by someone wearing an orange jumpsuit with the words “I am scamming you” tattooed onto their forehead. Deep down, to assume that information is a universal good is also to assume that, given the chance, no human will ever willingly choose to be exploited. Unfortunately, the internet is endless and even though it contains all of the warnings necessary to avoid such scams, its shear size means if there is any possibility at all of convincing someone, someone will be convinced. Unfortunately, twenty years of being on the internet has only further reinforced this point to me: no matter how absurd something is, someone somewhere will both believe it and, when challenged, will attempt to defend it.

Today, this is the internet. It is a place where every idea, no matter how batshit insane it is, has an audience. Scream nonsense into the infinite abyss of the internet and someone will praise you for it, someone will scream at you for it, and everyone else will try desperately to ignore it. Everything has an audience, and everyone can find whatever audience they are destined to be a part of. Sure, there are a lot of good things on the internet too, but it really only serves to further segregate and polarize it. Those who demand quality will find quality, and those who don’t, won’t. Why deal with someone you disagree with when you can instead swap compliments, or complaints, with someone who agrees with you? The vastness of the internet means you are guaranteed to find them. Just as your opposition is guaranteed to find theirs.

The limitless of the internet means that nobody ever has to be wrong because someone somewhere will always praise you for speaking things as they are. No business venture is so insane that somebody won’t fund it, no product so crappy that someone won’t buy it, and everybody else gets to drown in the billions of individuals screaming into the abyss looking for their audience. We tune out what we don’t like, we tune into the things we do, and everybody, no matter how rational they are, is forced further and further into their own pocket of this confirmation-biased nightmare. Nobody is immune.

When we created a system where information distribution is free, we simultaneously devalued the information itself as well as our own ability to process it. When it costs something to send a message across, we are forced to pick and choose what message we send or whose messages we share with others.

So what went wrong? Well, like so many failed social experiments before it the internet fell into the age-old trap of thinking that “more of a good thing must be a better thing”. Information is powerful, and I still believe fundamentally that access to information is and should be a public right. However, I no longer believe that access to an audience should be as well. When we created a system where information distribution is free, we simultaneously devalued the information itself as well as our own ability to process it. When it costs something to send a message across, we are forced to pick and choose what message we send or whose messages we share with others. This then is the legacy that tech built, and it is its main dogma. Facebook built its entire empire devaluing friendship. Twitter devalue conversation. Uber makes its fortune devaluing transportation. Even 3D printers’ main claim to fame is that they devalue manufacturing.

So my question for opponents of Article 17, who claim that it is the destruction of the internet, is: what does the Article do, exactly, that is such a problem? Well, there are a lot of arguments to be made about copyright and it’s handling, and these are important arguments, but I find myself unable to care. The DMCA has long twisted copyright into a tool allowing large companies to dominate the internet. The damage that US copyright law does to public knowledge is already done. New European rules will not fix this.

In terms of the new European restrictions, legitimate companies with money will buy their way out and legitimate companies without will have a harder time finding audiences. The infinite expanse of cheap and highly distributed content will continue on as if nothing happened. No law can stand in the way of free distribution. However, if it does succeed in splitting the internet in two, it might make the world just a little bit smaller. The biggest difference between young me and older me is that I’m no longer convinced that that is a bad thing.

Small Worlds, Mathematics, and Humanities Computing

I did it! I graduated.

It’s not perfect, but it is finished.

Abstract: Primarily the conversation surrounding humanities computing has been mainly focused on defining the relationship between humanities computing and conventional humanities, while the relationship humanities computing has to computers, and by extension mathematics, has been mainly ignored. The subtle effect computers have on humanist research has not been ignored, but the humanities general illiteracy surrounding computers and technology acts as a barrier that prevents a deeper understanding on these effects. This goal of this thesis is to begin a conversation about the ideas, epistemologies, and philosophies surround computers, mathematics, and computation in order to translate these ideas into their humanist counterparts. This thesis explores mathematical incompleteness, mathematical infinity, and mathematical computation in order to draw parallels between these concepts and similar concepts in the humanities: post-modernism, the romantic sublime and human experience. By drawing these parallels this thesis both provides a general overview of the ideas in mathematics relevant to humanities computing in order to assist digital humanists in correctly translating or interpreting the effects of computers on their own work and a counter argument to the commonly accepted notion that the concepts developed by mathematics are mutually exclusive to those developed in the humanities.

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