Taking turns to contrive a story gives off a radical whiff

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

In 2017, playing Dungeons & Dragons — outside the realm of the Internet — can feel slightly rebellious, the New Yorker suggests:

This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in. On the other side of politics,Christian moralists’ cries of the occult and anxiety about witchcraft followed D. & D. players everywhere. Worse still, parents feared how this enveloping set of lies about druids in dark cloaks and paladins on horseback could tip already vulnerable minds off the cliff of reality.

[...]

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

Adult D. & D. acolytes are everywhere now, too. The likes of Drew Barrymore and Vin Diesel regularly take up the twenty-sided die (or at least profess to do so). Tech workers from Silicon Valley to Brooklyn have long-running campaigns, and the showrunners and the novelist behind “Game of Thrones” have all been Dungeon Masters. (It’s also big with comedy improvisers in Los Angeles, but it’s no surprise that theatre kids have nerdy hobbies.)

Successful games yield “a-ha moments”

Monday, October 16th, 2017

A national security game designer at RAND describes how games can help America take advantage of different potential futures:

[A] recent RAND project designed a game-theoretic model of conflict in space to identify conditions that support deterrence. The research team developed an initial model of possible decisions an actor could make to escalate or de-escalate a budding conflict in space, but given the costs of building and running a program that could examine thousands of cases, they wanted to make sure that the model accurately reflected human behavior before they began programing. The team designed a short manual game where subject-matter experts were asked to manage a conflict that could easily escalate into war in space. We watched the players to see if they would behave the same way as the model predicted. For example, we hypothesized that players would be more aggressive when they felt themselves at a disadvantage. Over and over players acted out of a concern that they needed to “appear strong” — escalating the conflict exactly as the model predicted.

[...]

Game designers and participants in successful games often describe an “a-ha moment” — an unexpected game event or a statement made in the game that offered new insight on a familiar problem. For example, in the space game, participants took actions not for their operational effect, but rather to signal intentions. While the game designers had not previously included signaling actions in the design of the model, as soon as we heard it we knew it must be included. Similarly, in the RAND Baltic Games, players realized again and again that the short distance between the Russian border and Baltic capitals required forces to be prepositioned in order the have a fighting chance.

It was a standard archetype blown out to its extremes

Monday, September 25th, 2017

The Campaign For North Africa is no ordinary wargame from the golden age of the hobby:

It’ll take you about 1,500 hours (or 62 days) to complete a full play of The Campaign For North Africa. The game itself covers the famous WWII operations in Libya and Egypt between 1940 and 1943. Along with the opaque rulebook, the box includes 1,600 cardboard chits, a few dozen charts tabulating damage, morale, and mechanical failure, and a swaddling 10-foot long map that brings the Sahara to your kitchen table. You’ll need to recruit 10 total players, (five Allied, five Axis,) who will each lord over a specialized division. The Front-line and Air Commanders will issue orders to the troops in battle, the Rear and Logistics Commanders will ferry supplies to the combat areas, and lastly, a Commander-in-Chief will be responsible for all macro strategic decisions over the course of the conflict. If you and your group meets for three hours at a time, twice a month, you’d wrap up the campaign in about 20 years.

This is transparently absurd. Richard Berg knew it himself. He’s designed hundreds of war-games, focusing on everything from The Battle of Gettysburg to the Golden Age of Piracy, and The Campaign For North Africa was an outlier from the start. It was intended to be a collaborative mega-project for all of the wargaming experts employed by the storied, (and now defunct) imprint Simulations Publications Inc.

Initially, all Berg was responsible for was the map. Six months later, after the other designers had dropped out, SPI asked Berg if he was interested in finishing the game by himself. He was, and two years later he delivered history’s most infamous board game.

Berg has never completed a playthrough of The Campaign For North Africa. The game never received any of the compulsive testing required to iron-out inconsistencies and balance issues that are usually present in a freshly inked rulebook. Berg didn’t care. He never saw the point. “When I said ‘let’s publish this thing’ they said ‘but we’re still playtesting it! We don’t know if it’s balanced or not. It’s gonna take seven years to play!’ And I said ‘you know what, if someone tells you it’s unbalanced, tell them ‘we think it’s your fault, play it again.’”

The Campaign For North Africa

The Campaign For North Africa arrived in the summer of 1979 and sold for $44 in a chunky, four-inch deep box. The game was never a massive commercial or critical success. It harbors a middling 5.8 on community tastemaker BoardGameGeek, and objectively speaking, the systems are exasperatingly finicky and require an eagle-eye for obscure rules and exceptions. In many ways, North Africa is simply a product of its time. The late ‘70s served as the commercial peak for wargaming, with dozens of new designs hitting store shelves every week. The Campaign wasn’t unique, as much as it was a standard archetype blown out to its extremes. Naturally, you do have to pay a premium price for used copies of the game on eBay, but that has more to do with the novelty of owning the “world’s longest board game” than anything else.

The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have developed videogames for children who need to learn how to control their emotions better:

The videogames track a child’s heart rate, displayed on the screen. The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases. To be able to resume playing without extra obstacles the child has to calm themselves down and reduce their heart rate.

[...]

The impact of the games was tested in two studies.

In a pilot study, they first tested the game in a psychiatric inpatient unit with children with anger management issues, said Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, director of the developmental neuropsychiatry clinic at Boston Children’s. They found improvements in just five days and published the results in 2012 in a study in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry.

“A lot of these kids we are seeing are not interested in psychotherapy and talking,” said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who is head of the scientific advisory board of Mighteor, and said he has a small amount of equity in the company. “But they will work really hard to get good at a videogame.”

In a subsequent outpatient study the researchers randomized 20 youth to 10 cognitive behavior therapy sessions and videogame therapy that required them to control their heart rate, and 20 youth to CBT with the same videogame but not linked to heart rates. All the adolescents had anger or aggression problems, said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who was senior author of the study.

Therapists interviewed the children’s primary caregiver before and two weeks after their last therapy session. They found the children’s ratings on aggression and opposition were reduced much more in the group that played the game with the built-in biofeedback. The ratings for anger went down about the same in both groups. The findings were presented at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conference in 2015. The study is currently under review for publication.

Gygax was “eccentric and frightening”

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

C.J. Ciaramella filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the FBI’s files on TSR, the company that published Dungeons & Dragons, and found that Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator, sounded hardcore:

An FBI source in the report alleges that Gygax was “eccentric and frightening,” carried a weapon, proudly responded to every letter he received from an inmate, and had a Liberian holding company. It concludes: “He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.”

Gary Gygax FBI File from 1995

The FBI describes wargamers accurately enough:

…advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.

Idishe Melkhim

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

I haven’t played Crusader Kings II, but I found it interesting that a 16-year-old secular Canadian Jew decided to make a Jewish Kings “mod” to improve the accuracy (and depth) of the game’s depiction of his people:

Crusader Kings II does have Jewish characters, but most of them are not playable, and the few who are are — the Khagan of Khazaria and the Duke of Semien, to be specific — easily get destroyed by neighboring empires, and anyway are not very fun to play. I decided to add more options for playing as a Jewish character, such as new and unique decisions and events. In addition to making the Jewish character experience more in-depth, I added events for non-Jewish characters. For example, different kinds of Jewish courtiers can arrive at the court of a non-Jewish character. A non-Jewish ruler might be confronted with a migration of Jews to one of his provinces, and will have to choose either to accept them or not. Historically, sometimes European lords had to face tough decisions like this one. I added this event and others like it to make the experience more extensive and immersive.

[...]

Most of my changes to the game are small, but a few are relatively large, in my opinion. I added two new Israelite cultures: Mizrachi, the culture of the Jews who lived in the Middle East, and Hebrew, which is the predecessor of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. I changed the names of people in each culture and I gave them different bonuses to make them more historical and distinctive. For example, characters of Hebrew culture get +1 piety, and Sephardi get +1 learning. I gave all characters of the Jewish religion +1 learning to reflect how historically Judaism always emphasized the importance of studying religious texts. At first, I thought that it would be wrong to give Jewish cultures and religion so many (arguably over-powered) bonuses, but then I saw that in the base game, Buddhism has +4 learning (which is objectively overpowered)! I lost all shame and decided to proceed with the addition of said bonuses.

I made Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture nonexistent in the early game, but then develop in and diverge from their predecessor the Hebrew culture around the 9th Century, as it did historically. I gave the Karaite sect a head of religion: the Exilarch, and also one for the Samaritans: the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). I added events which only fire when a character restores the Jewish High Priesthood: The Sanhedrin restores the punishment of known murderers and adulterers. I added events where rabbis and other zealous Jews try to encourage other Jews to lose bad traits such as jealousy, pride, greed, and develop good traits instead. I added event chains where a Jew and a non-Jew discuss theology, and one of the two (possibly) develops sympathy for the other religion: A rare friendly interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the Medieval World. I added a decision for Jewish characters to observe the holiday of Yom Kippur with other vassals.

Of course, during all the event chains I mentioned (and the ones I did not), a wide variety of different outcomes might occur depending on the characters’ traits, your decisions and chance.

Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

South by Southwest included a talk called Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice, which examined how the CIA uses games:

In “Collection,” Clopper’s first CIA game, teams of analysts work together to solve international crises against a ticking clock. His second title, “Collection Deck,” is a Pokémon-like card game in which where each card represents either an intelligence collection strategy or a hurdle like red tape or bureaucracy.

[...]

Also speaking on the panel was Volko Ruhnke, who is an intelligence educator at the CIA and a freelance game designer. Ruhnke said he is particularly interested in one type of game: a simulation tabletop game to train analysts and help with analytic tasks. It could help forecast complex situations by forcing players to handle multiple scenarios simultaneously.
Ruhnke himself created a commercial board game to simulate the Afghanistan conflict and walk players through military, political, and economic issues in the region. It gives players “a much more dynamic understanding of the issues of modern Afghanistan,” Ruhnke said, adding that a similar game could be of use internally at the CIA as well.

Volko Ruhnke is famous — in the wargaming community — for designing the card-driven wargames Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001–? and Wilderness War. He was also the original designer of GMT Games’ COIN series, which includes Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Liberty or Death: American Insurrection.

How One Man’s Bad Math Helped Ruin Decades Of English Soccer

Friday, November 4th, 2016

Charles Reep, the father of soccer analytics, made one big, glaring mistake that changed the course of English soccer for the worse:

More than 60 years before player-tracking cameras became all the rage in pro sports, Reep was mapping out primitive spatial data the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Poring over all the scraps of data he’d collected, Reep eventually came to a realization: Most goals in soccer come off of plays that were preceded by three passes or fewer. And in Reep’s mind, this basic truth of the game should dictate how teams play. The key to winning more matches seemed to be as simple as cutting down on your passing and possession time, and getting the ball downfield as quickly as possible instead. The long ball was Reep’s secret weapon.

“Not more than three passes,” Reep admonished during a 1993 interview with the BBC. “If a team tries to play football and keeps it down to not more than three passes, it will have a much higher chance of winning matches. Passing for the sake of passing can be disastrous.”

Did you spot the mistake?

Reep’s mistake was to fixate on the percentage of goals generated by passing sequences of various lengths. Instead, he should have flipped things around, focusing on the probability that a given sequence would produce a goal. Yes, a large proportion of goals are generated on short possessions, but soccer is also fundamentally a game of short possessions and frequent turnovers. If you account for how often each sequence length occurs during the flow of play, of course more goals are going to come off of smaller sequences — after all, they’re easily the most common type of sequence. But that doesn’t mean a small sequence has a higher probability of leading to a goal.

C-WAM

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

The Center for Army Analysis Wargaming Analysis Model, or C-WAM, combines an old-fashioned tabletop map — typically about five-feet long and four-feet wide — and pieces with a simple computer database — the Battle Tracker:

The 76-page C-WAM game manual, a copy of which was provided to GovTechWorks under the Freedom of Information Act, contains 27 dice-driven tables.

To keep the wargame playable but realistic, some aspects are simulated abstractly.

[...]

Dice tables adjudicate everything from weather to special forces strikes. But the aim is less about specific results than to prove whether or not a concept has merit. “We tell everybody: Don’t focus on the various tactical outcomes,” Mahoney says. “We know they are wrong. They are just approximations. But they are good enough to say that at the operational level, ‘This is a good idea. This might work. That is a bad idea. Don’t do that.’”

In other words, like any good military simulation, the goal is cognitive.

[...]

C-WAM was created about eight years [ago] as a solution to a problem: JICM requires a human analyst to create detailed plans for both friendly and enemy forces, which can be fed into the model for adjudication. But sometimes initial plans lacked the detail needed to engage JICM successfully. For example, a combatant command (COCOM) might submit a theater-level plan for evaluation, but leave out specifics, such as whether friendly or enemy forces will attack on the right or left flank, or whether the attacker or defender will emphasize maneuver or rely on artillery. That meant that analysts had to subjectively decide how the battle would be fought.

“Somebody would give an analyst a very high-level document, that says, ‘You’ve got three divisions, they’re attacking in this terrain, here’s the enemy. Go forth and do great things,’” Mahoney says. “But the analyst didn’t know what the campaign looked like, how the terrain might impact operations, how the enemy’s capabilities — or our own — might affect things, the flow of friendly forces into theater and so on.”

Analysts weren’t necessarily equipped to make those decisions.

That’s where CWAM comes in. The game allows military organizations to come up with multiple Courses of Action (COAs) or alternative plans, and then test those out on tabletop to help leaders develop a final battle plan incorporating the best of each COA. Only then is the plan submitted to JICM for a detailed analysis.

A trend that has been puzzling economists

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Economist Erik Hurst is looking at how technology affects labor supply:

In my third summer project, I’m trying to understand the labor market and patterns in employment over the last 15 years in the US. Specifically, I’m interested in employment rates of young (in their twenties), non-college educated men. In prior work on changes in demand for low-skilled labor, the theory exists that as technology advances, both employment and wages fall due to decreased demand.

In this strand of my research, I’m almost flipping that theory on its head by asking if it is possible that technology can also affect labor supply. In our culture, where we are constantly connected to technology, activities like playing Xbox, browsing social media, and Snapchatting with friends raise the attractiveness of leisure time. And so it goes that if leisure time is more enjoyable, and as prices for these technologies continue to drop, people may be less willing to work at any given wage. This explanation may help us understand why we see steep declines in employment while wages remain steady — a trend that has been puzzling economists.

Right now, I’m gathering facts about the possible mechanisms at play, beginning with a hard look at time-use by young men with less than a four-year degree. In the 2000s, employment rates for this group dropped sharply — more than in any other group. We have determined that, in general, they are not going back to school or switching careers, so what are they doing with their time? The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% — almost one quarter — of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games. The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience. As a 30- or 40-year old man getting married and needing to provide for a family, job options are extremely limited. This older group of lower-educated men seems to be much less happy than their cohorts.

I am currently working to document this phenomenon, but there is a real challenge in determining what the right policy response might be to address the underlying issues.

How Hobby Games Introduce Coding Concepts

Friday, August 19th, 2016

Game-designer Jay Little explains how hobby games teach basic coding concepts:

For me, no other game influenced this more than Magic: The Gathering. I’m a firm believer that if you can play Magic: The Gathering (or just about any other collectible or living card game), you are well on your way to understanding coding and the logic behind it. Even if you never touched a lick of code — even if you never see the Matrix in all those ones and zeroes — you understand the basics. Enough to really cut down the learning curve for a number of visually-based drag-and-drop game design programs like Game Salad, Game Maker, or Stencyl.

You Merely Adopted Dungeons & Dragons

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

Vox Day recently re-shared his Hugo 2016 ballot, where he listed the first draft of Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N book in the best related work category, and that caught my eye, because I’ve mentioned the original Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide‘s Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading before.

In fact, the last time I mentioned it, I cited Jeffro’s own post that he had just completed his survey of all the entries on the list.

It turns out he cited one line from my own post:

Modern fantasy writers have read a lot of modern fantasy. The early fantasy writers read history and legends.

Bane You Merely Adopted Dungeons

Computers — Threat or menace?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” Stewart Brand wrote in 1972, in Rolling Stone — which explains the context for what comes next:

That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It’s way off the track of the “Computers — Threat or menace?” school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That’s the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell. (More on him in a moment.)

[...]

The setting and decor at AI is Modern Mad Scientist – long hallways and cubicles and large windowless rooms, brutal fluoresccnt light, enormous machines humming and clattering, robots on wheels, scurrying arcane technicians. And, also, posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer print-out photos of girlfriends, a hallway-long banner SOLVING TODAY’S PROBLEMS TOMORROW and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script – the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

[...]

I’m guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you’d expect hotrodders to look. It’s that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They’re kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it’s a place where you don’t have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It’s a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you’re any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science — “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.

A young science travels where the young take it. The wiser computer research directors have learned that not trusting their young programmers with major responsibility can lead immediately to no research. AI is one of perhaps several dozen computer research centers that are flourishing with their young, some of them with no more formal education than they got at the local Free School. I’m talking to Les Earnest, the gent who went for beer. He’s tall, swarthy, has a black and white striped beard, looks like a Sufi athlete. He’s telling me about what else people build here besides refinements of Spacewar. There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference. Work with autistic children, ‘trying to get them to relate to computers first, and then later to people. This seems to be successful in part because many of these children think of themselves as machines. You can encourage them to interact in a game with the machine.”

I’ve written about that piece before, but it came up again because Rolling Stone itself is revisiting it:

Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD.

[...]

Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,” he says.

In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.

Ecco the Dolphin

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

I never played Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin, but I’m not surprised that it would be linked to John C Lilly:

Lilly was once a renowned and respected American scientist, with a particular interest in marine biology and interspecies communication. In the early 1960s he was given funding by NASA to research whether it was possible to teach dolphins to speak. NASA’s logic was that if we could learn to communicate with dolphins, we would have a better understanding of how to converse with extra-terrestrials if they were to ever pop down for a visit.

Lilly flooded a house in the Caribbean so that dolphins could live as closely as possible with him and his team, amongst them Margaret Howe Lovatt, who apparently had sex with one of the animals. The experiment fizzled out as, unsurprisingly, nobody was able to get any of them to talk – although check out YouTube for one of his subjects attempting a pretty close “Hello Margaret”. Useful, if all aliens were called Margaret. Lilly lost funding for the project, moved away from traditional science and threw himself further and further into 1960s pseudo-mysticism and chemical experimentation.

Around 1971 Lilly was looking for a cure for his chronic migraines, and a friend suggested that ketamine could help get rid of them. Back then ketamine wasn’t a widely used drug, probably only used recreationally by a small group of dedicated trippers, quite unlike its status today as a popular party drug. When he was under the influence of a small dose of K, Lilly said that he felt the migraine being pushed out of his body and, miraculously, he never had one again. Encouraged by this, he developed a longstanding affection for the substance he dubbed “Vitamin K”, and started taking it regularly, gradually injecting it in higher doses.

Just shooting up ketamine on its own wasn’t enough for Lilly, though, and soon he was IV-ing it inside a sensory deprivation tank with the help of his friend, Dr Craig Enright. They thought that by using the tank external stimulation would be significantly reduced, giving a psychedelic or, in this case, a dissociative experience at a higher level of intensity. Neither appreciated that what they were doing was incredibly $#@!ing dangerous – tranquilising drugs and floating on water aren’t to be mixed under most circumstances, and sure enough Lilly’s wife, Antonietta, had to resuscitate him on one occasion where he nearly drowned. These experiments would form the foundation for Paddy Chayefsky’s 1978 novel Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell.

During his sessions, Lilly came to believe that he was being contacted by an organic extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office – ECCO. This alien group was benevolent, omniscient and in control of all earthly matters. Except for when they weren’t quite so friendly, as at one point Lilly thought they’d made off with his penis.

The similarities between Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin and Lilly’s ketamine fantasies are undeniable. It’s almost like the game’s story is an amalgamation of his interest in dolphins and the wacky philosophy he spouted when returning to reality from his phenomenal K-hole trips.

Alongside ECCO, Lilly encountered another alien life force, which he called the Solid State Intelligence. Unlike the entities from ECCO, the SSI were spawned by a mechanical solar system, and their main aim was to ravage the earth and destroy mankind. It’s not unlike the much-documented cinematic battles between us fleshy creatures and advanced AI turned malevolent, and it’s no stretch to compare the SSI with Ecco’s Vortex enemies, those evil, dolphin-kidnapping, interstellar villains.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

Can Boys Beat Girls in Reading?

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

Boys outscored girls on reading tests — when they were told the tests were a game:

The latest study, in France, involved 80 children, 48 boys and 30 girls age 9 years old on average, from four third-grade classes at three schools. All classes received a silent reading test that required students to underline as many animal names as possible in three minutes from a list of 486 words (animal names comprised half the list). Two classes were told the test was an evaluation of their reading abilities, and two were told it was a new animal fishing game designed for a fun magazine.

In classes given reading evaluations, boys made an average of 33.3 correct answers compared with 43.3 by the girls. But when the tests were framed as animal games, boys’ average scores were significantly higher: 44.7 compared with 38.3 for the girls.

It looks like the boys’ performance improved and the girls’ performance declined when they said it was a game?