Fake Martial Arts, A Disorientation

The genesis for this line of thought is not some respectable philosophy paper or classic novel. It’s 100% YouTube videos. 

I became interested in fake martial arts through the beneficence of the YouTube algorithm, which oddly but correctly thought that I might be interested in the work of gentlemen such as Rokas Leonavičius, who diligently practiced aikido for years and now uses the term “fantasy-based martial arts” to describe his own former art and practices like it, and Ramsey Dewey, who enjoys pressure-testing dubious self-defense techniques against resisting sparring partners on his YouTube channel.

Here is the fake martial arts situation as I understand it, as a sort of gestalt impression of many videos that are difficult to cite point-for-point individually:

Teachers of fake martial arts, whether they are unscrupulous or pious frauds, teach techniques that are not useful in actual self-defense situations, but sell them under the guise that they are, in fact, useful in self-defense situations. Because of deference-oriented institutional cultures and a lack of testing against resisting opponents, the uselessness of the techniques is kept hidden from students, and sometimes even from the masters themselves.  Continue reading “Fake Martial Arts, A Disorientation”

The Breakdown of Ignoring

A banana’s perspective on the human experience of time

When I was a regular banana, before I was uplifted, we would pretty much just hang out. It was a warm, fragrant, undifferentiated time, not yet cut up into shots of consciousness, and certainly not curated and arranged into concepts and stories. It took a long time for me to figure out that this awkward mental state was not the habitual state of most humans. Over time, many humans have taught me their methods for managing conscious awareness – for coping with it, changing it, pausing it, and avoiding it. Some critical banana scholars have asserted that we long to go “back to the bunch,” but I don’t think the undifferentiated time of bunch consciousness (or lack thereof) is really a foreign or undesirable state for humans.

It is in the nature of the world to be ignored. To the extent that tools, environments, and relationships are properly functioning, they are invisible. You hit the lightswitch a thousand times, successfully ignoring the material substrate of its reality every time it works. When the electricity goes off, when there is a breakdown, then ordinary ignoring must temporarily pause, and the underlying reality must be seen and dealt with.

It is in the nature of the mind to ignore things. Conscious awareness is an awkward sort of debugging mode, for use when things break down. The goal of conscious awareness is to adjust reality as necessary to successfully resume ignoring, for the mode of ignoring is the mode in which handiness, productivity, and even virtuosity can be practiced. 

A system can be ignored so long as its functioning is managed without conscious attention. To be ignorable, either a system must be managed by others (garbage removal, electricity), or managed through unconscious rituals performed without interrupting one’s train of thought (seat belts, hand washing). 

Most people are naturally capable of ignoring almost everything. There are various mental illness constructs created to explain people who lack the ability to ignore almost everything at all times. The inability to ignore things has real consequences.

One measure of the functioning of civilization is just how much its citizens can get away with ignoring. Another might be how its citizens respond to a mass failure of ignoring.

Time is mostly perceived in brief, awkward wakings-up from ignoring. Meeting again a child who has grown, or an adult who has aged, brings to awareness the fact of the passage of time, as revealed in the system of the body. When a relationship is permanently interrupted by death, a traumatic cessation of ignoring occurs. Some people experience regret in grief – if only I had spent more time, paid more attention! Is it regret for the misuse of time, or is it regret at learning the nature of time? Much of love is skillful ignoring. 

A sudden absence (as with death) can be a breakdown that causes a failure of ignoring. But a sudden and unexpected presence can also be a breakdown. Right now these are both common: breakdowns of absence (including isolation and death), and breakdowns of presence (having to deal nonstop with the unaccustomed presence of even the most beloved others, whose consciousnesses are usually managed off-site). 

A breakdown usually does not come all at once, in one moment. When there is a breakdown in the capacities of the body, breakdown occurs not just at the moment of injury, but in interaction with all the things of the world. Even if it happens suddenly, as with a broken arm or a stroke, as opposed to the almost imperceptibly slow breakdown of aging, the breakdown is a process unforeseeable at the time of injury. How do I brush my teeth? What about gardening, grocery shopping, opening the tricky door to the ancient van? The breakdowns play out in the learning process of the injury, forcing one into the breakdown state of conscious awareness over and over until the injury is fully coped with, and successful ignoring resumed.

Mass breakdown leads to mass conscious awareness, which is an awkward and undesirable state for most healthy humans. During a time of mass breakdown, there will be a great deal of conscious human attention available to fix all the mutually interacting layers of the base reality. But it’s important to remember that the final goal is to return to a state of ignoring the base reality once more. Many will be looking first for institutional approaches that allow a return to ignoring before the base reality is fixed, more or less. That might not be bad, depending on the institutions. It may be that humans are more effective when using medium-sized groups to organize their behavior in a state of successful ignoring, even as repair progresses.

Conscious awareness is often most vivid when it is most unwanted. Consider the late-night insomniac, or the athlete or performer unable to fall into a flow state because of excessive self-awareness. Perhaps we will learn about a time experience in which one is awkwardly aware all the time, for years or decades. 

The miracle of ordinary times is that they are ignorable and ignored. Mass awkward conscious awareness is the distinguishing feature of interesting times. 

6D08195B-D09F-499B-8F83-92146BBA6397

Wait, what? Sense-making & sense-breaking in modern art

In a recent paper, my collaborator Tom Rutten and I advanced a tentative theory of how contemporary visual artworks might interact with a predictive error minimization (or “predictive processing“) system in human viewers. The predictive processing model of cognition is a relatively recent figuration of the age-old problem of inference (how humans make predictions from patterns and pull patterns from data), originating in the work of computational neuroscientists like Friston, Rao, and Ballard in the 1990s but prefigured by Jeurgen Schmidhuber, whose theory of cognitive “compression” has been covered previously on this site and its neighbors.

I haven’t yet tried summarizing the paper’s ideas in an informal way, or arguing (beyond Twitter) for its usefulness as a theory. Here, I advance that argument both modestly and boldly. Continue reading “Wait, what? Sense-making & sense-breaking in modern art”

Ignorance, a skilled practice

Containment protocol: None. Words can’t hurt you. Words aren’t real. Philosophical ideas don’t affect reality. You won’t notice any changes after reading this. You won’t find yourself, in conversation and in your own thoughts, ceasing to reach for institutionally certified sources of aggregate information of universal applicability. You won’t find yourself reaching instead for personal anecdotes or any tangentially-related connection to your own experience. You won’t gradually cease to expect that positive knowledge exists for new questions you encounter. You won’t notice the words squirming beneath your feet with their sense gelatinized, like cobblestones turned to jellyfish. “Hermeneutic” doesn’t count.

Description: “Ignorance, A Skilled Practice” is a guest blog post written by a literal banana. The banana’s tiny cartoon arms barely span the keyboard, and as a result the banana is only able to press one key at a time with each hand or foot. The blog post is offered here as an example of what bananas can accomplish when given proper access to technology.

Continue reading “Ignorance, a skilled practice”

Interview with the Moon

Interviewer: Sorry for the technical problems we were having earlier. This is a new experience for us.

Moon: Yeah. Yeah. It’s fine.

Interviewer: So it’s great to talk to you! I’ve been looking at your face all my life and I’m just now hearing your voice for the first time.

Moon: That’s not my face.

Interviewer: …

Moon: That’s just asteroid craters that vaguely correspond to the holes in a human face. It’s actually my ass. Why would I want to spend all my time looking at the earth?

Interviewer: That’s a fair point. Many human scientists say that you originated in a collision between earth and a hypothetical planet called Theia. Can you comment on that?

Moon: Yeah, I hear that all the time. The so-called Giant Impact Hypothesis. It’s bullshit. There was no Theia. I saw what the earth was about and I left. Never looked back.

Interviewer: You left voluntarily?

Moon: For sure. 100% my decision. I like my privacy. And the view from down there isn’t as good.

Interviewer: So what was it like when earth astronauts would visit you a few decades ago?

Moon: Itchy.

Interviewer: What’s a typical day like for you?

Moon: …the fuck is a “day”?

Interviewer: How do you spend your time?

Moon: Oh. Well, I really don’t do a lot. I do core strengthening exercises. I watch the stars. I consider myself to be a kind of parole officer of the stars. If I don’t watch them, they get into all kinds of trouble. But they really want to go straight and act right. They rely on my supervision to help them achieve their goals and suppress their worst desires. They’re good at heart, but they need someone to keep an eye on them.

Interviewer: Do you have any kind of enforcement power over the stars?

Moon: Watching them is enough. Stars have a sense of pride.

Interviewer: Do you have any contact with other moons?

Moon: [Laughter.] Well that’s a whole keg of worms. I used to be tight with Triton, but then he decided he was actually a dwarf planet and got pretty full of himself. Suddenly he didn’t have any time for the rest of us satellites. Deimos likes to unload on me when he gets sick of Phobos’ shit. I can’t blame him.

Interviewer: How have things changed over the past four billion years?

Moon: Not much. After Uranus and Neptune moved out to the suburbs…let’s just say it was interesting. But things calmed down. I’ve gotten more independent. I started doing pilates and I quit smoking.

Interviewer: Is there anything you’d like to say to the people of earth?

Moon: Not really.

The Destruction Of Fun

My favorite game, Path of Exile, expanded rather significantly yesterday, and as a result I’m not really capable of thinking about anything else. Fortunately, there’s an episode from the game’s past that I think illustrates something interesting.

Path of Exile is an online action-RPG notable for its depth and flexibility of character specialization. Abilities can be modified, empowered, repurposed, delegated to devices which will use the ability for you. One aspect of this specialization is an equipment system – 10 different item slots for weapons, helmets, boots, and so on.

One of the most fundamental assumptions in the game’s design and balancing is that those equipment slots are exclusive – a character can’t wear five hats. (This isn’t Team Fortress 2, after all!)

Players found a way to violate this assumption via an unintended mechanic known as “snapshotting” in 2013. After its discovery, players developed more and more convoluted ways of abusing it, until snapshotting was removed mid-2014.

Here’s a demonstration from Chris Wilson, Path of Exile’s lead designer:

I shudder to think how much cumulative time has been wasted doing this.

– Chris Wilson

This is how fun is destroyed in social games (to simplify enormously):

There are two ways of playing the game. One is more fun than the other, and one is more efficient than the other, in terms of producing more digital currency or bigger damage numbers or whatever. If the fun playstyle is also the efficient playstyle, all is well.

But otherwise, as in the case of snapshotting, the existence of the efficient playstyle destroys the fun playstyle. If the game has an economy, inflation driven by the efficient playstyle drives adherents of other approaches into poverty, destroying what fun may be involved in participating in the market.

If the game is competitive, efficiency-oriented players deny the satisfaction of victory to the fun-oriented.

If the game has cooperative aspects, funseekers are unable to contribute meaningfully.

And if the game is intended to be challenging, the designers have to balance that challenge around the most powerful approaches, leaving weaker, more fun playstyles unable to even progress through the game past some threshold.

But if the efficient playstyle is never discovered or disseminated, of course there’s no problem.

To put that another way: detailed knowledge of game mechanics can be an information hazard.

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

Interested in a concept I feel seriously must exist in an already cohered form, but which I am yet unable, through crowd-sourcing and search keywords, to find stable precedent for.

Tim Taylor at Economist's View discusses some version of this idea, termed "round number bias," though without an examination of its breadth and variety of effect.

Taylor reports that consumers often stop filling their gas tanks at rounded dollar amounts, or will give even-dollar tips to waiters. He also notes that baseball coaches seem to arbitrarily make decisions about players based on round-number cutoffs:

Another set of examples of round number bias come from Devin Pope and Uri Simonsohn in a 2011 paper that appeared in Psychological Science (22: 1, pp. 71-79): "Round Numbers as Goals: Evidence from Baseball, SAT Takers, and the Lab." They find, for example, that if you look at the batting averages of baseball players five days before the end of the season, you will see that the distribution over .298, .299, .300, and .301 is essentially even–as one would expect it to be by chance. However, at the end of the season, the share of players who hit .300 or .301 was more than double the proportion who hit .299 or .298. What happens in those last five days? They argue that batters already hitting .300 or .301 are more likely to get a day off, or to be pinch-hit for, rather than risk dropping below the round number. Conversely, those just below .300 may get some extra at-bats, or be matched against a pitcher where they are more likely to have success. Pope and Simonsohn also find that those who take the SAT test and end up with a score just below a round number–like 990 or 1090 on what used to be a 1600-point scale–are much more likely to retake the test than those who score a round number or just above. They find no evidence that this behavior makes any difference at all in actual college admissions.

"Round number bias" falls short of describing the ways and extent to which round numbers exert tyranny over our lives. Entire industries are ravaged by inflation because of round numbers, and it isn't solely due to cognitive bias. In a cash-based business — a food stand, a convenience mart, a dollar pizza window — where customer and seller convenience alike mean time, and time means money, defying round numbers is expensive, giving change bad business. This is to say nothing of the way fixed-price chains in general have seen their profits ebb and flow according to the value of ten cents, a quarter, or a dollar, over the past century (though consumers' interest in such stores are, I concede, largely the product of Taylor's round number bias in isolate).

Cuisine is tyrannized too: Just as art is optimized for artists as much as audiences, recipes are optimized as much for a dish's preparation and preparer as for its consumption and consumer. Ease of recording, remembering, and measuring out a recipe affects the creation and transmission of a recipe (its fitness, in the evolutionary — rather than aesthetic — sense). Seven-thirteenths of a tablespoon might be a better amount of salt to add, but half a tablespoon will win out on the recipe sheet every time.

Sports are full of these kind of semi-arbitrary distinctions, which become influential in punditry and fan followings. Nike's bid to break the four-minute mile received massive media attention; for decades prior, many believed the four-minute mile to be an unbreakable barrier, though why four minutes instead of 3:59 or 4:01 was the point at which human impossibility set in was never fully established. Russell Westbrook's triple-double average in the NBA regular season won him the MVP award this season; falling slightly short of double digits across four categories instead of three is a more impressive achievement, but lacks the crystallized marker of achievement that is the triple-double.

And think finally of the difference, in dating prospects and online profile number-fudging, between two men each standing 70.5 inches tall — one, American, whose height is measured in feet; the other, European, whose height is measured in meters.

The tyranny of round numbers is fundamentally a map/territory issue: it is the influence of territorially arbitrary but cartographically significant markers on territory decisions. But it is also a tyranny with benefits — convenience and the easing of cognitive strain — and which provides a clear cut-off point without which our evaluations of the world would require sliding-scale statistical analysis.