Sunday, November 30, 2014

Science vs. the media vs. pseudoscience

Assume that you don't feel well and go to a doctor. After much study and experimentation, the doctor presents a diagnosis of cancer. He shows you the scans and the results of the tests, he explains in detail what kind of cancer it is and what stage it is in, and suggest a treatment that has a good prognosis.

You then go to a second doctor who knows nothing of this, and he performs a lot of experimentation and comes up with a very similar, if not identical, diagnosis, and a very similar treatment suggestion.

Then you go to a third doctor, and the same thing. You keep repeating this with 99 doctors in total. Some minor details may have slight differences (such as the estimation of the advancement of the cancer, or minor details in the suggested treatment), but overall they all give pretty much the same diagnosis and the same solution. They all show you the scans and the results of all the other tests for you to see, and you can corroborate that they are all pretty much the same.

Then you find a doctor who gives you a quite different diagnosis. He says that it's probably just a benign tumor, and it might just go away by itself. He suggests that you just wait some months to see what happens. If you ask him for the scans and test results, he is evasive.

Then you go to a holistic new-age spiritualist, and he says that cancer is just a lie invented by greedy medical corporations, and that your problems will just go away if you change your diet. All this, of course, without performing any kind of experimentation or measurements on you.

Who would you trust? The 99 doctors who all agree on the diagnosis and the treatment, and who showed you all the results, the one doctor who gave a differing diagnosis and treatment, or the spiritualist?

The answer to much of the modern media (not all of it, of course, but a way too large portion of it) is to give equal time to all three groups. There's a big controversy over your diagnosis! This is headline news! Besides, all views on the subject deserve equal time, don't they?

The answer of pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists is to believe the spiritualist. Science is closed-minded, nefarious and greedy, so it's completely untrustworthy. Besides, look at that one doctor who said that you don't have cancer! Clear proof that you don't! It's all a conspiracy and a lie. All those other doctors fabricated all the test results and evidence, and are misinterpreting it. Also, there's this one paper from 1937 that casts a completely different light on the whole cancer thing, and that paper is completely trustworthy because it was written by a PhD! (He was a PhD in English literature, but never mind that.)

Of course I'm not talking just about medical diagnoses here. This was a metaphor for all science that has a fictitious "controversy" surrounding it.

Unfortunately a large part of the general public swallows these things whole, without much criticism or scrutiny.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Metacritic

Metacritic is a website that aggregates scores given by critics of different media, such as movies, TV shows and video games. Its purpose is for people to easily and quickly see what the consensus of critics at large is of a given piece of art. They do this by taking the score given by a critic or publication and scaling it to a 0-100% scale, and then calculating a weighted average of all such scores.

The problem with this is, however, that the numbers are often rather meaningless, and don't necessarily really reflect the actual quality of the work (either in general, or personally for you in particular).

Giving a score to a piece of art is in itself often a rather meaningless thing to do. Not least because the scale itself is highly subjective and dependent on the publication or even individual critic.

For example, in a scale from 0 to 10, some people might consider 5 to be "average" (ie. not excellent, not horrible, but ok; still very watchable/playable), while other people might consider 7.5 to be exactly that.

(This latter concept comes from some school scoring systems in some countries where anything less than 5 means that you failed, 5 being the absolute minimum score required to pass, and about 7.5 being the "average" score. In some countries all failed tests are scored with a 4, while in other countries they use the full 0-4 scale to indicate how far the test was from passing.)

What this means is that, using a scale from 0 to 10, one publication giving a 5 to a game may mean the exact same thing as another publication giving it a 7.5, depending on how they express their scores. However, as far as anybody knows, Metacritic does not take this into account.

Then there's the problem of publications and critics giving different scores to different aspects of eg. a video game. For example they may give a score of 6 to the graphical quality of the game, but a 10 to its gameplay, with an overall score of 8. From a user's perspective, they might value the gameplay a lot more than the graphical quality, so they would be more interested on that aspect. But this isn't reflected very well in the final score of 8, and much less in the final Metacritic score.

Another big problem is the scaling of the original score to the 0-100% scale of Metacritic. Rather infamously, if a publication uses a scoring system like eg. a letter between A and F, Metacritic will take an 'A' as 100%, and an 'F' as 0%. In actuality, an 'A' may well be anything between about 85% and 100%. But Metacritic simply equates 'A' with 100%, thus inflating the score (and deflating it in the other extreme.) (A better mapping would be to assign 'A' with about 92% and 'F' with about 8%, and everything in between linearly. While this is still way too coarse, at least on average it would be more accurate.)

In short, Metacritic scores are almost meaningless. A movie or game with a metacritic score of 80 could well be better than one with a score of 90. It's really random and subjective.

Well, that's just one website's take on the subject. You can interpret it as you want, and ignore it if it bothers you, right? Well, the problem is that Metacritic as a lot more influence in the industry than it really should. Many publishers and investors are looking too tightly at the Metacritic score of works they are considering. In fact, some publishers will demand a higher cut on games with a lower Metacritic score (based on critic previews). In other words, Metacritic is actively hurting content creators.

Metacritic also demonstrably has an influence on sales (there have been studies about this). It's demonstrable that games with a higher Metacritic score will sell better based solely on that fact (in other words, the exact same game will start selling better if its Metacritic score increases).

This is great for games that happen to get a higher score, but not so great for those that don't. Metacritic may have too much influence on this, given how arbitrary and ultimately meaningless the numbers are.

Another criticism of Metacritic is that they do a weighted average of scores, and their weighting factors are kept secret. They give more weight to big, "reliable" critics while giving less weight to others. This kind of secrecy may be cause for concern because it's unknown how much bias there is in the choice of weights.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My love-hate relationship with the USA

When the United States of America attacked Iraq in 2003, the rest of the world, especially Europe, just loved to hate the USA. There was tons of bad press, protest marches and so on.

I couldn't stand the hypocrisy of those protest marches in particular. For example here where I live there was a (needless to say completely futile) protest march against the invasion of Iraq, which disrupted normal traffic. I found this especially hypocritical because there were no such protest marches eg. during the Rwandan genocide or when Russia attacked Chechnya in 1999. But when it's the USA who's invading a country, then people love to hate it, and organize protest marches because it's trendy and it gives them a feeling of having the moral high ground.

I detested this hypocrisy so much that I actually flung to the other side, ie. I started liking the USA. After all, I knew (and still know) lots of Americans online, and they are on average really smart and good people. The USA has made lots of great achievements in all kinds of fields, such as science, technology, space exploration, medicine, the film industry, the gaming industry, and so on. Sure, there are also lots of stupid people there who do all kinds of stupid things, but honestly, show me a country that does not have its good share of stupid people who do stupid things, and I can call you a liar. I could tell you countless examples of sheer stupidity in my own country, all the way from individual people to the governmental level. It would actually be quite hypocritical to mock another country for stupidity when your own country is no better.

However, over the years I have grown a bad taste for the USA as a country, when I have seen so many things that no other civilized country does (at least not in such a scale). And it's not only one or two things, but so many of them combined...

There's the police brutality thing, which is genuinely something that's significantly worse in the USA than in most other civilized countries. In the USA, the police force often acts like it's a military force in a foreign, hostile country, and they are extremely trigger-happy. When you watch the police in action, it's often like watching a military operation. In fact, one could argue that in many places in the country the police is actually more like a paramilitary organization. Their gear, their armament, vehicles, their training and behavior... they are all like directly lifted from some military training course.

Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with that, if it weren't for the fact that they not only look like military forces, but they also act like it, shooting to kill from the slightest of provocations, resulting in numerous deaths of people who were no threat. In fact, you wouldn't believe how many people the police has shot to death in the back who were unarmed and fleeing, and even people who were in the act of surrendering. The most typical shooting happens when the suspect has a "knife". Often the shooting happens from tens of meters away, and oftentimes the "knife" really wasn't.

And that's of course only a small fraction of all the police brutality and abuse. And the most damning thing is that the police forces always protect their own. Whenever possible they will never even start any investigation, unless there's a public outcry. When there is an investigation, overwhelmingly the officers are found either completely blameless, or slapped in the wrist with a very minor infraction. This even if the officer killed someone by shooting the fleeing person in the back.

And the United States government does nothing to stop this. In fact, the government promotes police brutality. We saw this in how both the police, and the government response to it, behaved during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This is most certainly not something that just happens in all countries. This is pretty much unique to the United States, among most civilized countries, and thus is one of the reasons why I cannot sympathize.

Another point of contention is the recent NSA mass surveillance leaks. While mass surveillance is not absolutely unique to the United States, it's still rare (at least on that scale), and something that I cannot endorse.

Anti-terrorism laws are a very complex subject, and it's not a black-and-white situation. However, abusing those laws to prosecute or extradite people for completely unrelated crimes is another thing I cannot endorse (and also almost unique to the United States).

Then there's the hints of theocracy of the country, which is also almost unique among most civilized countries. In fact, the theocratic vibes in the United States have only gotten worse during the past decade or two.

It's rather curious that the United States is one of the very few countries in the world where the separation of church and state, the prohibition of a government-promoted religion, is codified in the constitution of the country, yet the United States is one of the most theocratic countries of the western world. For example in many European countries there is no separation of church and state codified in their constitutions, and many of them actually have official state churches... yet they are still enormously more secular than the United States.

The situation has got so bad that a politician will basically commit political suicide if he doesn't show overt religious traits. In fact, an openly atheist politician would never be elected as president, no matter how qualified he would be for the position and how good and effective his plans for the betterment of society would be. In fact, a complete dictator would be elected as president in his stead if he just says some few magical "God bless you" and other such incantations. This is absolutely insane.

The overtly religious tendencies have much dire consequences than simply who gets elected to office. Homophobia and discrimination against atheists and other such people is rampant at many places. They are often treated worse than mass murderers and child rapists. This is simply something that I cannot condone (and also something that's pretty much unique to the United States, when compared to other civilized countries).

Needless to say, my opinion of the United States has deteriorated quite a lot during the past decade.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The bane of first-person shooter players

Since basically the dawn of time there have been two major annoyances I have had with almost every first-person shooter game:

Firstly, reloading. I hate reloading as a game mechanic.

I understand that having to reload adds a certain level of realism and challenge to the game. The problem is that when a game mechanic is more frustrating than challenging, it becomes questionable whether it's a good game mechanic at all.

You wouldn't believe how many times I have died because the playable character runs out of bullets and starts reloading right during a crucial moment. You wouldn't believe how many times this has happened right when just one or two more shots would have killed the enemy. And of course reloading takes forever in the heat of battle.

And yes, I do reload manually whenever I can. In fact, I reload as much as the situation allows me. But that doesn't help in a very difficult fight where there simply aren't any pauses that would allow reloading. Basically if you reload, you die. And of course you run out of bullets at the worst possible moment, and die.

Dying when just one or two shots would have killed the enemy, and you start reloading, is frustrating to no end.

Secondly, you get constantly stuck on the scenery in fights.

The first-person perspective adds tons of immersion to the game, which is why it's such an ubiquitous and popular format. However, it has a huge disadvantage: You can't see what's at your sides or behind you.

Difficult firefights often involve lots of strafing and backing to avoid the enemy. And you need to constantly aim at the enemy if you want to shoot at them. But since you can't see what's at your sides or behind you, you will invariably get stuck in scenery that's out of your field of view, which can be highly annoying, especially in difficult firefights where you need to be constantly mobile and run and parry a lot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The problem with Steam

Steam is Valve's content distribution system. Or in simpler terms, a centralized way to buy games online. Steam filled an almost empty market niche at the right place at the right time, and it has got immensely popular over the years, and has become almost a monopoly on that front. While competing systems have emerged later, they have hard time reaching even a tiny fraction of the popularity of Steam.

In the very beginning Steam was used by Valve exclusively to distribute their own games. (Steam also worked as an anti-piracy system.) However, after some time they opened it to other vendors as well, although at first they gave high priority to third-party games using Valve's own Source game engine. However, they soon started allowing any games to be distributed through Steam without such biases.

Initially Valve had really high standards of quality for what they would and wouldn't accept to be distributed through Steam. On the plus side this ensured that most if not all games bought from Steam were technically of decent quality. On the minus side many companies and developers, especially indie developers, found it almost impossible to distribute anything through Steam, while well-established big game companies had almost automatic approval. Sometimes this meant that great indie games were rejected.

Valve has since loosened their acceptance policies. The problem with this? Valve has gone to the absolute other extreme: Now they are basically approving anything that either gets enough votes in their greenlight system, or comes from a known game company. There seems to be no quality control at all. In other words, while in the beginning the standards of quality were almost draconian, now there is no quality control whatsoever.

This means that there are tons and tons of garbage on Steam right now. There are indie games of absolutely atrocious quality that cannot even be called games at all. Many people get duped into buying this garbage because they assume that if it's published on Steam, it has to be at least playable at some level.

Another phenomenon that has surfaced in recent years is that many companies are dumping to Steam quite old games they own the intellectual property, for a quick buck. In many cases they may even masquerade the game as being a new game, ie. published recently, and may even make the screenshots deceptive in this sense. In other words, a game you bought that you may think was recently published (because the publication date on Steam was like 2013 or such) may well be a game first published in 2002 or something.

This is not always bad, of course. In some cases this gives a great opportunity to get older games that were extremely good, and which would otherwise be basically impossible to get. The problem is that many of these old games were of atrocious quality (or very mediocre at best). It outright smells of fraud when the publisher does not clearly express that it's a 15 or so years old game, but tries to masquerade it as a new game.

And of course in many cases the publishing company made the minimal possible effort to have the game running on current computers. This often means that the game might not even run properly on some PCs, or have other kinds of problems.

This is becoming more and more common because it seems that Valve has stopped quality control completely. They don't seem to even check if the game even runs at all in modern PCs.

And of course Steam does not offer refunds, period.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Poor Xbox One...

While the PlayStation 3 was in no way a failure, it nevertheless had a rough start. The Xbox 360 had a full year head start and was quite a success, so the PS3 had very tough competition on that field. On top of that, Sony made too fancy of an attempt at making the console efficient by using an exotic and obscure processor design which was not supported by any game engine at the time. It actually took several years for game engines to fully take advantage of the peculiar architecture of the PS3 (and even then many game engines never reached its full potential).

In other words, while the PS3 can, in the end, be considered a successful console, it had a very rough start and it took it several years for it to catch up with its biggest competitor. One could estimate that the console was almost doomed because of this, but in the end everything turned out well.

It seems that now the roles are pretty much reversed with the next-gen consoles, ie. the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. While the former did not have such a big head start as the previous-gen Xbox compared to its competitor, otherwise the Xbox One is really struggling to keep up with the success of the PS4. (As of writing this, Sony has announced that over 13 million units have been sold, while the same number for the Xbox One is about 5 million.)

One can see similarities in the reasons for this. However, in the case of the Xbox One, rather than the reason being exotic hardware, it's more a question of features and marketing.

The Xbox One had a lousy start well before even the first unit was on the market. Microsoft announced all kinds of draconian restrictions on game sales, sharing and reselling, as well as questionable decisions (like the announcement that the console would be unusable without internet, and that the Kinect, with its cameras and microphone, would need to be on all the time) which were very poorly received by the public. These announcements backfired on them even harder when Sony took advantage of the situation and promoted that the PS4 would not have any such draconian limitations, gaining the favor of the public. Microsoft eventually retracted the majority of these limitations due to the backlash, and while this regained them their reputation somewhat, it was arguably too late, as bad publicity is hard to erase.

Another misfire by Microsoft was the idea to develop and promote the Xbox One as a multimedia platform that sits in between your TV/cable input and the TV, enhancing the features of your normal TV, internet, online streaming, etc. In fact, Much of their presentations at conferences were specifically related to TV.

Rather than, you know, games.

This might have sounded like a good direction on paper, but the people at Microsoft really misfired with this one. People do not buy consoles to be multimedia devices. They buy consoles principally to play games. At the very most they buy consoles to watch BluRay discs, but that's the closest you get. Microsoft spent a lot of time and effort to promote the idea of the console being some kind of extension to TV, and this did not cause much excitement nor interest in the public. What's worse, they went so far that they kind of promoted this notion over the actual games and gameplay. People wanted to see what the console could do with games, but all they got was sales speeches about how the console would enhance your TV watching experience...

The Kinect is another failed idea. It was originally an optional add-on for the Xbox 360, developed very late during its lifespan, and there were only very few games that took advantage of it. With the Xbox One Microsoft had this idea that it would be an integral (and mandatory) part of the console. I'm guessing that they wanted more games to support it, and making it an integral part of every single console, it would promote and entice developers to support it. However, not only did it get tons of bad reputation initially (due to the announcement that it would need to be on all the time in order to use the console), but overall people do not see the need for the peripheral. Most games don't use it, and it's a gimmick at best. The vast majority of people don't feel the need for the Kinect at all.

All this added up to the bad rep of the console, and everything was ultimately topped by the fact that in the end the Xbox One was revealed to be slightly less powerful than the PS4, but cost about 100 dollars more. It's no surprise that the PS4 has oversold the Xbox One three to one (and even more during the first months).

Microsoft has since driven their console's price down by offering a version without Kinect (which goes to show how ultimately pointless their attempt was at making it an ubiquitous part of the console). This has brought the price of the console much closer to its competitor, but nevertheless another form of backfiring is happening here. You see, since Microsoft promoted the Kinect so much, selling the console without it makes make people feel that they are buying an incomplete product; that they might be missing something important if they buy it without Kinect. Granted, many people don't care, but it's still a bit messed up.

Of course both consoles have existed only for less than a year (as of writing this), so the situation will probably equalize a lot in years to come (in the same way as happened with the previous-gen consoles). But at this moment it's the Xbox One that's fighting an uphill battle due to poor decisions.

Even with all those past mistakes behind us now, currently the majority consensus seems to be against the Xbox One, the major reason being its slightly less efficient hardware compared to the PS4. Unlike marketing decisions, this is something that's very hard to fix afterwards.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When new feminism takes over the gaming press

Feminism has been historically an extremely important social movement that has achieved a great deal of social progress in terms of equality and justice. Of course every social movement has its fringe radicals, but those usually get largely ignored.

The internet era, however, gives these fringe sub-movements a loudspeaker to spread their messages, which in some cases may cause what would have been a forgotten ideology to become almost mainstream. A form of feminism I'll call "new feminism" (for the lack of a better term) is a modern variant of feminism that basically borders on conspiracy theories, seeing "sexism" and "patriarchy" everywhere, and making mountains out of molehills, treating minor issues as if they were great injustices that will destroy our society as we know it. (I suppose that since feminism has in large part achieved its goals, ie. equalizing the law to be gender-neutral, the modern feminist is left little of actual importance to complain and feel outraged about.)

The bad thing about new feminism is that it's both toxic and extremely virulent. It poisons the rational mind, and makes otherwise intelligent and rational people behave in all kinds of irrational and nonsensical (and often even surprisingly aggressive) ways. I could write numerous examples of this exact phenomenon that I have personal experience about. However, at this juncture I'll like to comment on what new feminism has done to gaming journalism.

You see, new feminism has succeeded in turning a significant portion of the gaming press against its own target demographic, and sometimes even against its own sponsors and investors.

This is not very smart. When you turn against your own readers, and even your own sponsors, and start insulting them, belittling them and writing derogatory articles full of hatred and vitriol against them, you are digging your own grave, financially speaking.

When there's a controversy going on that easily gets heated and causes people to verbally attack other people, the smart thing to do is to simply stay out of it completely, regardless of what your personal stance on the subject might be. Just let the fanatics fight it out among themselves, and let the controversy die out eventually. As a smart journalist or publication you will have everything to gain by staying out of it, and basically nothing to lose.

However, new feminism poisons the rational mind. It makes people into justice warriors, fighting for a "good cause". Which has caused game journalists to write extremely insulting articles against their own readers, ie. gamers. They are biting the hand that feeds them. And then they act all butthurt when their readers fight back and won't stand for the insults. As a result of this butthurt, they respond by insulting their readers even more. This is completely stupid.

Big sponsors like Intel and IBM, who have sponsored many of these gaming publications, have retracted their sponsorship from many of these gaming journals, seeing that they don't want to get involved in the vitriol. This is the smart thing to do, and a big kudos to them! This is exactly what you need to do in such cases.

So how has the gaming press responded to this? For example the Gawker blog responded to Intel stopping their sponsorship by... you guessed it, writing a vitriolic attack against Intel, insulting them and calling them names.

This is beyond stupid. It's outright suicidal (in financial terms).

But this is exactly what new feminism does. It poisons the rational mind. It makes people turn against their own followers and their own sponsors, just to make themselves feel morally superior, to be moral justice warriors. It makes rational people stupid.

(This is not to say that all gaming press has been such indoctrinated by feminism. For example gameinformer doesn't have any problem in writing articles critical of the new feminism that's trying to take over the gaming industry. For examples this is an exceptionally well-written criticism and analysis of Anita Sarkeesian. This is an article that criticizes Intel and their $300 million initiative to support diversity in the tech industry, with some questionable partnerships.)