Wednesday, January 28, 2015

YouTube ads

I use the AdBlock+ add-on for Firefox, which seamlessly removes all ads from most websites, which is why I never see ads of any kind on YouTube.

I wanted to check a video at 50 FPS, and since Firefox does not support that yet for some reason, I watched it with Chrome. I don't have any ad-blocker there, so I get to see the ads.

Now, since YouTube is owned by Google, and all ads are provided by Google, and Google is a rather respectable company, one would think that they would only accept appropriate ads that are formal and in good taste. But what did I get? This:

Way to stay classy, Google.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What is a "real" video game?

I recently bought on Steam a visual novel type game named Cho Dengeki Stryker. I like the genre when it's well done. I have played several ones, but one prominent example is 9 Hours - 9 Persons - 9 Doors for the Nintendo DS, which is an excellent example of a visual novel that takes great advantage of both the genre and the platform to present a story-heavy game that's interesting to play. Thus I was looking forward to Cho Dengeki Stryker given the positive reviews it has on Steam.

This game, however, is different. It's a visual novel. Literally a visual novel. It's not just a game of the genre, but a literal visual novel. In other words, text with images, some animations here and there, and basically nothing else. You simply click the mouse to advance to the next paragraph of text, and that's it. It's fully voice-acted (in Japanese), but it's still just a novel.

This was quite a disappointment because this isn't, in fact, a game at all. There are no choices, no interactivity, no branching storylines to speak of, no gameplay, no puzzles, nothing. It's just a novel.

The distinction between these two categories of visual novel are more emphasized in Japan, where pure visual novels are distinguished from so-called "adventure games", which use the same style but involve actual gameplay (often in the form of some kind of puzzles) and, most often, branching storylines and/or non-linear (or out-of-order) storytelling depending on player's choices. However, the distinction is not very clear in the promotional material of the games when published here.

This got me thinking: What exactly makes a video game a "game"? Why do I consider Cho Dengeki Stryker "not a game" but 9 Hours - 9 Persons - 9 Doors one?

There ought to be some very basic elements to a video game to make it an actual game, as opposed to simply the equivalent of a novel or a movie.

Firstly, interaction: The program must be interactive in some manner. And this interaction should go a bit further than to simply wait for the user to click to advance to the next paragraph of text.

This is tightly tied to the second feature: Choice. The player needs to be given some kind of choices, no matter how primitive, rather than the events on the screen happening in the same manner completely regardless of what the player does. This could be, for example, choice of direction of movement, or choice of dialogue. Even if these choices have no grand-scale consequences to speak of, the mechanic should still be there.

Thirdly, a goal: A game should have some kind of goal that the player strives toward. It's not a question of how complicated or large that goal is (it could be extremely primitive and simplistic), but there should nevertheless be something that the player is trying to achieve, which is the point of the game. (This doesn't mean that the game must have an ending. A game could very well be endless, such as trying to play for as long as possible, with progressively increasing difficulty. The goal in this case could be, for example, trying to achieve the highest possible score.)

Fourthly, challenge: Achieving said goal should not be completely and absolutely trivial. This ties to everything above: Achieving the final goal ought to involve player choices, and those choices should be even slightly challenging. It should be something more complex than simply "click to advance". (This doesn't mean that the game has to necessarily be difficult and require great skill or knowledge. Even a very easy game can still be fully considered a game.)

Cho Dengeki Stryker has none of the above features, which is why I don't consider it a game at all.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Eyewitness testimony is almost useless

Much of ufology and claims of the paranormal rely heavily on eyewitness testimony. There probably is no book, "documentary", video or website about those subjects that doesn't give plenty of eyewitness testimony as evidence. Many of the proponents argue directly from eyewitness testimony (one of the core ideas being the idea that surely there can't be this many hundreds or even thousands of testimonies with very similar details if there's no truth behind them.)

People give too much credence to eyewitness testimony, especially when it affirms what they want to believe. This is so even with people who fully understand and even agree with the results of psychological experiments that show how unreliable it can be.

I'll write here a somewhat comprehensive list of reasons why eyewitness testimony is unreliable and, in fact, almost completely useless. (That's not to say that eyewitness testimony is never useful in any context; the point is that it shouldn't be relied on. At the very most it can be used as a starting point for further study, but nothing more. Conclusions should not be drawn from it, nor is eyewitness testimony really compelling evidence in any situation, regardless of what other forms of evidence exist.)

I'll divide the reasons into two major categories: Dishonest eyewitnesses and honest eyewitnesses.

1. Dishonest eyewitnesses

For some reason when people want to believe in something (such as that Earth is regularly visited by intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms), they tend to suspend criticism of eyewitnesses that support their beliefs, especially when the eyewitness has authority or is otherwise famous, influential or charismatic (or even if other people consider him or her as such).

Why would people lie about things like UFO's? Many reasons.

- Money and fame

This is the most obvious one, yet still surprisingly often dismissed by aficionados. Yes, many, many people lie, fabricate and invent stories for the sole reason of monetary gain or fame. They are purely con artists. When they are good at it, they can tell stories that are so convincing to eager ears that the aficionados will defend the sincerity of the con artist to the end.

And these con artists don't need to be nobodies. They can be important or competent people in different fields. The popular depiction of a con artist is some nobody high school dropout who has no expertise in anything particular, no education, no job, no titles or ranks of any merit, and who simply is in it for a quick buck. However, there are con artists in all kinds of fields. Some of them may be highly educated top scientists, some of them may be high ranked military officers, or be in all kinds of important positions. Usually they have found that they can use their position or rank to bolster their lies, and they abuse it to the maximum.

(This is actually a problem in science, but the scientific method has a quite good way of pruning out cons from actual trustworthy results: The rigorous peer reviewing process. This method is quite good, and you can expect cons to never pass this process, and thus you should always check that.)

 - Attention seeking

Yes, many people fabricate stories eg. about them having been abducted by aliens for the simple reason of grabbing attention from the ufology community. They like the attention they get, and they want to belong. They want to feel special and be noticed. They like seeing their names in books and documentaries.

Usually these people will maintain to their graves their honesty, no matter how much their story is put into question. These people often would feel terribly ashamed of getting caught fabricating stories and lying. When such a person has a proper empathetic personality, they can be extremely convincing.

- Lying for the cause

Some people have a deluded sense of "camaraderie" for their fellow believers, and want to support "the cause" and promote their beliefs. They are convinced that if enough people have experienced the phenomenon (such as seeing UFO's or having been abducted), that will help bringing it to the attention of the wider public. In their minds, even if they aren't fully aware of it, they think that if they can do their part to promote the movement, everything helps.

They may not be fully aware of it, but at a subconscious level the rationale goes something like this: "Ok, maybe I really didn't see anything abnormal or wasn't really abducted by anything, but that doesn't really matter. It happens to a lot of people and it could very well happen to me; so it's not really lying per se. The fact that it happens is so certain that it could just as well have happened to me directly, so it's not really a lie. I want to be supportive of the group and the cause, so I'll add my part to promoting it."

And, quite naturally, getting recognition from others helps.

- Embellishing honest experience

Sometimes a person who has truly experienced something listed below in the next section, will nevertheless "enhance" their story with embellishments and fabrications to make it more believable. They will add details that they didn't actually experience, and fill in the gaps with such invented embellishments. This often overlaps a lot with the previous reason (ie. in their minds they think that they aren't really lying; they are just telling it how it probably happened, even if not every single minute detail is something that they remember clearly.)

- Diverting attention from the true explanation

This one dwells more on the "governmental conspiracy" land, but it's not absolutely impossible that at least some UFO stories have been fabricated to divert attention away from the actual explanation. Of course I don't know if this has ever happened nor do I have any kind of evidence of it, and thus it should most definitely be taken with a grain of salt, but I wouldn't consider it absolutely ludicrous and impossible. It might be that eg. the military of many governments don't mind steering curious people off tracks from their secret military projects. (This would have the double benefit of both diverting the attention of ufologists away from the actual project, and to discredit the existence of the whole project from the rest of the public who will simply think that it's another ludicrous ufo story.)

Of course if this has ever happened, it's probably extremely rare, but it is a possibility.

2. Honest eyewitnesses

Not all eyewitnesses are deliberately lying. They may be completely honest and convinced of what they are saying. It's just that the human mind is so easily confused that what they are saying may well not correspond to reality. There are many reasons for this.

- Pareidolia

The human brain has a complex pattern recognition system. This system is actually essential for our survival. It's what helps us distinguishing the type of objects, recognize people, etc. Without it we couldn't live for long.

The thing is, our pattern recognition system is in some aspects "too good". It makes us see patterns where there are none, especially when we don't know what we are looking at. A random blob of colors might look like a face. A tree with a funny shape might look like a person when looked from a certain angle. A strange object in the sky might look like a flying device.

- Misinterpreting strange phenomena

Closely related to the previous, people often try to figure out the meaning of strange phenomena that they don't understand. Oftentimes they come to the wrong conclusion based on insufficient knowledge and experience on the thing being witnessed.

Ironically, being an expert on one particular subject may aggravate the misinterpretation of an unknown phenomenon that's unrelated to that subject. For example, a military pilot who has been trained to spot, recognize and report enemy vehicles and devices, might well be an ironically poor judge when interpreting something that's not any of that. Since they have been trained to see and recognize eg. flying vehicles, they might misinterpret an unknown aerial phenomenon as such, when in fact it isn't. Ironically, the more trained you are in one particular field might make you a less reliable eyewitness for unrelated phenomena.

- Dreams

Yes, interpreting dreams as real events is quite common in this vast world. Some people recognize them and remember them as dreams, but nevertheless still attribute more significance to them than merely that. Some kind of connection to the real world, as if the dream reflected something equivalent that really happened while the person was dreaming. Others outright misremember a dream as being a real event. These people are seldom willing to even believe that this kind of mistake can happen to them.

- Hallucinations

Minor hallucinations are much more common than most people know or understand. Most of these (perfectly normal) hallucinations happen most often when a person is either falling asleep or waking up (and, in fact, these hallucinations are quite closely connected to dreaming.)

Many people have experienced them at least once during their lives. For example, they may be snoozing off, when suddenly they are absolutely and completely certain that somebody else is in the room with them, even though there shouldn't be anybody in the house. They get very startled, until they wake up completely and find out there wasn't really anybody there.

In a few cases some of these people experience so-called sleep paralysis. This is when the brain is "half asleep" and has basically "turned off" muscle control, so the person is unable to move, even though they are half awake. Sleep paralysis episodes are often accompanied with strong hallucinations. It's not uncommon in these cases for the person to hallucinate about seeing other people or similar things in the room with them.

Most people understand these hallucinations (with or without sleep paralysis) for what they are: basically just bad dreams. However, other people over-interpret them and believe them to have been real events.

- False memories

False memories are much more common than people like to believe.

Over the years the details of some event becomes harder to remember accurately, and we tend to fill in the gaps with our imaginations. We may then start believing that these embellishments are what really happened.

Sometimes an event didn't really happen at all, but we just eg. imagined it, or dreamed it. Years later we misremember it and think that it was an actual event. Sometimes it's something that we read somewhere, saw on television, or a friend told us, and again many years later we misremember, and think that it was something that happened to us personally, when in fact it wasn't.

A surprising amount of "first hand" eyewitnesses actually aren't. Instead, they were told about the event by somebody, or they read about it, and they imagined the event in their heads as it was being told to them, and many years later they mistakenly remember this imagined version to have been an actual first-hand experience.

The story told by "second hand" eyewitnesses is often extremely unreliable. We are not machines that can repeat perfectly what has been told to us. Instead, when someone tells us something, we form a mental picture of it, filling in the blanks. When we later retell the story, we don't repeat the original words, but instead we describe the mental picture we got from it... including all the filled-in blanks and embellishments that our imagination created. This is one of the most common ways for stories to become distorted, even when nobody is actually deliberately lying.

- Mental illness

Let's face it, in some cases some people really are psychologically not well, and believe in all kinds of things that are nothing more than the product of their troubled minds. In some cases it may not be apparent to others, especially people who are not close to the person, that the person is actually mentally ill. As much as we would not want for this to be true, it does happen.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How homeopathy can actually be dangerous

Homeopathy is the belief that if you take a substance that causes symptoms that are similar to the symptoms of an affliction or disease, and then dilute that substance in water enough, then that water becomes an effective treatment for that disease (not just the symptoms of that disease, but the disease itself.)

For example, if you suffer from sleeplessness, they believe that if you take caffeine, dilute it into water, and then re-dilute that water over and over until basically every single caffeine molecule has disappeared from it, and then drink a drop of the end result, it will help your sleeplessness.

Needless to say, this is just a placebo effect. However, proponents of homeopathy go further and claim that homeopathy can cure actual diseases, such as viral and bacterial infections. (Why would diluted symptom-causing substance do something to the actual viruses or bacteria is anybody's guess.)

Ok, so it's a placebo. It's not really dangerous, is it? But it can be. It can potentially be very dangerous.

And I'm not talking about the danger of someone going off actual medication for their disease in favor of homeopathy. This is, of course, a danger in itself (and people have demonstrably died because of this exact reason; there have been actual court cases and convictions.) However, I'm talking about something else.

Recently, Fran Sheffield (the director of Homeopathy Plus Australia) put up a petition at urging the World Health Organization to test and distribute homeopathy to contain outbreaks of ebola.

Of course trying to fight ebola with homeopathy would be the exact same thing as trying to fight it with drops of water... except that homeopathy would actually be potentially extremely more dangerous. How so?

Can you guess how exactly they propose to make the homeopathic remedies? If you guessed "put ebola viruses in water and then dilute it", then you guessed right.

This would be a really, really, really bad and dangerous idea. Firstly, and most importantly: What happens to the excess water from the dilution process? It's simply thrown into the sink.

That's right. Water infested with ebola is thrown into the sink. Think about that for a moment.

Secondly, while the chance for one of the viruses to end up in the final product is astronomically small, it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. If millions of pills are produced, there's a non-zero chance that at least one virus will end up in at least one of those pills.

In other words, there's a non-zero chance that at least one person will be administered with a pill containing an actual ebola virus in it.

If you didn't think homeopathy can be dangerous before, perhaps you should reconsider.

Monday, January 12, 2015


I have noticed a trend, both online and offline, that people who try to silence other people's opinions and stifle discussion tend to be on the wrong.

This doesn't mean that people who welcome discussion and never silence anybody tend to be on the right. In this case it may or may not be so. However, those who try to silence others do tend most often than not be on the wrong.

Silencing dissent is a typical aspect of most dictators. Criticism and discussion is discouraged, and most often than not even criminalized. Those who do oppose the dictator are vilified, dehumanized and persecuted. All dissenting opinions and media are silenced as much as possible.

In the internet era a minor form of this has emerged. They could be called "mini-dictators".

Also they don't like to see or hear criticism or dissenting opinions. They will often do everything in their power to try to silence the opposition, either within their own circles, or even sometimes actively everywhere. They will delete posts and comments, block or ban users, and often even disable comments altogether. If they run a blog or forum, the ban hammer will be delivered swiftly for any dissenters. If they have something like a YouTube channel or individual YouTube video, they will either delete comments they don't like, or disable comments completely.

Sometimes they aren't content in limiting their own circle to be "pure", but they will actually actively try to silence criticism everywhere. Nowadays filing false DMCA claims is an extremely common tactic. It's an easy way to try to silence dissent. (It's especially obnoxious when you see someone filing DMCA claims only against videos that are critical, but never against videos that are supportive. DMCA's are typically not filed against videos where there would actually be an actual legal stance, ie. it would not be a false DMCA at all, but a legit one, as long as those videos are supportive, not critical. For example videos that are just mirrors of the original.)

As said, I have noticed that this behavior tends to be engaged mostly by people in the wrong. Creationists, conspiracy theorists, AIDS denialists, neo-feminists, homeopaths and other snake oil salesmen...

I have seldom seen this kind of behavior eg. from actual scientists and skeptics. (I'm not saying it never happens, but it seems to be very rare.)

Just as a small example:

Monday, January 5, 2015

The most dangerous conspiracy theories

The Moon landing, Kennedy assassination, 9/11, chemtrail, new world order, holocaust denialist and other such conspiracy theorists are deluded, idiots or charlatans, and essentially religious zealots. Many of them are assholes (especially eg. the holocaust denialists), but in the end their delusions are more or less harmless. Sure, deluding people into believing falsities is a kind of harm in itself, but the repercussions of these false beliefs are usually relatively small. At most they can cause people to annoy other people, disturb public peace, spam forums, and other such minor things, but not much else.

However, there are two conspiracy theories that are actually very dangerous. We are not talking just about deluding people or making them annoy other people. We are talking about people dying needlessly. We are talking about these conspiracy theories actually killing people who wouldn't need to die otherwise. These are actually dangerous conspiracy theories. They are the AIDS denialist and the anti-vaccination movements.

These are not just some fringe movements that have little to no consequence on people's lives. Many people are buying this stuff and dying as a consequence. For example, if you go to the major AIDS denialist forums out there and follow people there for some time, you will see in real time how many of them are dying. Every now and then you will see someone who has been convinced to go off their HIV medication and who starts getting worse and worse as the weeks pass, until they end up in a hospital, after which it's often too late. Some of these people even post photos of themselves in those forums.

But it goes beyond that. The president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki was convinced by AIDS denialists to ban all HIV medication, which resulted in over 300 thousand premature deaths. This makes it one of the deadliest cults in existence.

The problem with this cult is that not only does it cause already-infected people to die prematurely, it also causes non-infected people to get infected. HIV medication lessens the risk of HIV-positive mothers infecting their unborn children. Many HIV-positive AIDS denialists also engage in unprotected sex with non-infected people, often without informing them. This is a really dangerous, outright criminal ideology.

The anti-vaccination movement has similar traits. Just for some specific numbers, see the anti-vaccine body count website.