Free to Play Games and Unfettered Capitalism

To maximize profits, game designers often manipulate players. [1] [2]

This trend is especially apparent in “free to play games,” (aka freemium games) where  the game designer only profits when players choose to pay, after engaging with the game. This contrasts with the more traditional case, where a player buys a game first — that is, when the player must pay to play.

The difference between these two models is important. In the pay-to-play-model, a game designer’s incentives are mostly aligned with the player’s incentives. That is, a player wants to buy a fun game; and a designer benefits from making the game increasingly fun. However, in the freemium model, the game designer’s incentives are perverse: A freemium game is most profitable when it addicts and manipulates its players into continual payment; in contrast, the player’s incentives are likely some combination of minimizing payment and maximizing fun.

While we would like to believe all companies behave ethically, because freemium games offer potential for corporate profit, and such profit is maximized by manipulation and addiction, games like “Candy Crush Saga” are the end result. Games like CCS are explicitly optimized to addict, manipulate, and extract payment from players — all the while trying to hide such deception from the player. Of course, if you ask (developer of CCS), they will claim that they optimize their games on the basis of “fun,” and not “profit.”

In other words, when incentives systems for companies clash with those of consumers, often the result is the rise of legal yet unethical corporate behavior, coupled with “corporate doublespeak,” where the guilty corporations invent feasible explanations that obfuscate their true motivation.

One can interpret the increasingly devious mechanisms that enable freemium games to extract money from players as a cautionary tale about unfettered capitalism: Special attention and intervention is often needed wherever incentives for companies and consumers conflict. Consumers might be well-served by mandatory warnings on freemium games to indicate possible manipulation, or by public service announcements helping consumers understand the mechanisms by which games manipulate.

As human beings, we understand that even if a particular action is legal and profitable, it may still be unethical. Yet, the market speaks largely to profit, with a certain indifference to ethics. Capitalism as a whole is an ingenious and often well-behaved system; but without oversight where corporations’ and consumers’ well-being conflict, unfettered capitalism can slide into exploitation, where humans are treated as ATMs instead of autonomous beings seeking to flourish and be happy.

Book Review: Moral Mazes

An important question for a capitalist society is, how does capitalism affect our morality? It’s important because we should be aware if there are negative side-effects to unfettered capitalism, so that we can resist such potential damages to society, and introduce regulations where they are necessary. An interesting investigation into how corporate environments can shape morality is given by Robert Jackall’s 1988 book Moral Mazes, which I highly recommend.

The basic thesis of the book, supported by in-depth interviews across several large companies, is that managers in large companies tend to internalize a flexible morality — one that is not based on rigid ideas of right vs. wrong, but one able to invent moral explanations for what is in the current best interest of the company, or at least in the best short-term interest of a particular manager. In other words, to fully maximize profit in a company requires making decisions that might be at odds with traditional morality; e.g. breaking promises, ruthless business practices, cutting benefits to workers, bribing officials, lobbying for changes in regulations that may have negative environmental impact, etc. Thus, to be an effective manager often means meeting targets set for you from above by any means necessary.

In this way, the most effective managers are typically those who are able to rationalize post-hoc, to themselves, or at least to others, why they are making certain decisions that might be seen from outside as unethical. Managers learn to be pragmatic, to do what is necessary without raising qualms about moral or ethical considerations:

As a former vice-president of a large firm says: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

Overall, perhaps the insight is that whatever incentive system is driving the company as a whole will end up filtering through a corporation to breed a moral environment aligned with that incentive system. Because large corporations are often under significant pressure to be profitable in the short term, the morality of “anything that increases short-term profitability is good,” can spread throughout a company and trump more traditional moral concepts.

The book describes how targets and objectives get set within a corporation:

The key interlocking mechanism of this structure is its reporting system. Each manager gathers up the profit targets or other objectives of his or her subordinates and, with these, formulates his commitments to his boss; this boss takes these commitments and those of his other subordinates, and in turn makes a commitment to his boss.

Then there is the pressure to optimize those objectives:

At each level of the structure, there is typically “topside” pressure to achieve higher goals and, of course, the CEO frames and paces the whole process by applying pressure for attainment of his own objectives.

In this way, the company as a whole is set to optimize for objectives; and the result is that a morality based on objectives seems to pervade managers. That is, reaching the objectives is the overarching goal, and a decision is “moral” if it helps along those paths, and “immoral” if it impedes those paths, regardless of how those decisions might be viewed through traditional morals or ethics.

As a society we are already aware of corporate immorality. We know not to interpret what comes from a company’s PR department as gospel truth. We question scientific studies sponsored by corporations that are in line with their interests but counter to scientific consensus. We are wary of lobbying attempts by corporations to influence regulation and politics, because we know that their best interests are often not our own.

Like humans, corporations have significant pressures to commit crimes out of self-interest; e.g. a person wanting more money might decide to rob a bank, if there were no consequences. However, as a whole, corporate morality may be more perverted than that of individuals, and corporate influence far greater. The result is that often influence can be applied to rewrite the rules in a corporation’s favor, or at least escape from much significant harm when they are caught breaking the law.

As citizens, we express outrage when corporate greed leads to devastating economic effect (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis) without any punishment to the offending corporations or their leaders. Our criminal justice system seems to punish those without influence (e.g. the poor, or average citizens) far more severely than those with influence (e.g. the rich and corporations); this seems unjust.

Thus perhaps a potential solution is to apply punishment more uniformly and justly, whatever the status of the perpetrator. This might offset a corporation’s drive towards immorality through strong negative incentives to break laws or cheat. However, it is not clear to me how to achieve such reform, which would itself require massive influence. Any ideas?

Righteous Nerd Rage and the Electoral College

TLDR: There’s no excuse for not fixing important yet obviously broken systems when a easy fix is available.

When a process is obviously broken, and an appropriate solution is known and available — that solution should be implemented. Sometimes, due to political reasons or laziness, the easy solution is ignored or swept under the rug, and the process remains broken.

This is frustrating, especially to people with the hacker mindset; once a provably better system is available, with no downsides, there is no reason not to adopt it. To not do so seems foolish and backwards. There is an irreverence for bureaucracy among hackers that develops into what might be labelled “righteous nerd rage.” What evokes this justified anger is when purely political or bureaucratic concerns overpower a mathematical or technical truth. For example, if system Awful was clearly inferior to system Awesome, and yet system Awful remained in place only because the CTO received a kickback from system Awful’s manufacturer. It feels sleazy and undermines having a meritocracy of ideas, where more effective systems replace those that are less effective; it’s what enables progress.

A system that irks me in this way is the electoral college system in the US (indeed, 62% of Americans support getting rid of the electoral college). The main concept is that instead of tallying the overall popular vote throughout the country, what matters is the popular vote within each state. Whatever presidential candidate has a majority of votes in each state, wins the votes of all of that state’s electors. Because of this system, the candidate with more votes nationally need not win; in three elections, the popular vote did not agree with the electoral college system, and a president less-preferred by its citizenry was elected.

It’s a ridiculous system that disenfranchises voters and warps the political process. The main problem is that if you are in a state that has a safe majority for either party, your state effectively ceases to matter to either candidate during their campaign. If you are of the opposite party from the majority, your vote in that state has absolutely no impact. It cannot escape the bounds of your state to affect the national election.

So, what mainly determines an election are the “swing states,” that do not have a safe one-party majority. As a result, candidates tailor their policies, campaign promises, visits, and ad spending, to only a handful of states. In effect, the concerns of the swing states are amplified, while those of the unswingable states are ignored. For example, in the 2012 election, twelve states received all the post-convention candidate visits, and two-thirds of all campaign visits were to only four states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa. It’s silly — do these four states really carry 2/3 of the union’s importance? (If you have never seen CGPGrey’s informative video on the electoral college, or any of his other great videos, they are worth a watch).

But a simple solution has been readily available: Change how states allocate their electoral votes. One clever hack that is gaining momentum is the National Popular Vote bill, which has already been enacted by nine states. It ensures that the winner of the popular vote becomes president, once the bill is enacted by enough states to control more than 50% of electoral votes. It does nothing until that point. Mo Rocca (of Daily Show fame) has an informative video on the bill here.

There’s no reason that this bill should not be enacted; it would improve our democracy and political process. It’s embarrassing that we hold on to such a broken and flawed system while obvious superior alternatives exist. On, there is a “take action” tab, where you can send emails to legislators and donate money.

I can understand that it might at first seem silly to donate money to an abstract cause like overturning the electoral college — especially when there are people starving around the world. But what I’ve come to believe is that perversions in our political process often underlie and perpetuate injustice on grander scales. The electoral college impedes progress, as do other flaws in our political process, like our two-party system and the brokenness of campaign financing. These flaws in our politics are what breed cynicism and apathy in voters, and corruption and perversion in our politicians.

Fixing the electoral college would greatly reduce voter disenfranchisement; but even better, it would force politicians to focus not only on what is good for a few swing states, but on what is best for the country as a whole. Once again, I encourage you to visit, and send a letter to your legislator through their “take action” tab.

The Morality Apocalypse: An Open Letter to Bill and Melinda Gates

TLDR: Don’t give a toddler a flamethrower.

In more detail: The letter makes an argument for allocating more funds towards solving less immediate causes of human suffering. In particular, one emerging problem is that we as a species may face a morality apocalypse: Our species’ level of moral responsibility may become laughably insufficient to manage increasingly powerful technologies. We may become like a toddler with a flamethrower,  resulting in suffering on a massive scale.

More detail yet: Technology allows us to impact the world more drastically, and can as easily be used for good as it can for evil. Technology is growing at an accelerating rate, while moral progress is plodding. Already our technological power outstrips our ability to use it responsibly (e.g. are we morally developed enough as a species to be entrusted with nuclear weapons?). A mistake would be to view morality as a fixed part of the human condition — there may be technological ways to enhance empathy or decrease our species’ tendency towards greed, revenge, and moral flexibility under duress. Without intervention to remedy our morality (perhaps through technological means), humanity may be at significant risk for horrific outcomes as our technical abilities more drastically eclipse our moral ones.


Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gates,

You are a smart and generous couple who have impacted the world for the better with earnest good intention. I am glad there are wise people like you, who strive to reduce human suffering. Although no doubt you have both given much thought to how you charitably spend, please allow me gently to appeal to your intellects and argue for increased focus on problems far less immediate, but perhaps more fundamental and pervasive to the human condition. In my mind, the central approaching dilemma of our age is that technological development has far outpaced moral development and seemingly will continue to do so without intervention. As a result, I believe it is possible we may soon approach a cross-roads that if not carefully navigated may wholly undermine our potential as a species to happily flourish and survive: a potential morality apocalypse.

First let me reiterate that the world needs more people like you who aim to eliminate absurd deaths and needless pain. It is easy for most of us to ignore suffering, to instead allow the minutiae of each of our small but worthwhile lives to monopolize our focus. Few consistently raise their focus from the petulant stream of day-to-day concerns; few ask how they can remedy in any serious way the vast inequity resulting from the dumb lottery of life. What you are doing is an honest and good thing, which I do not criticize. My only aim is to illuminate the possibility that perhaps greater good, perhaps even humanity’s escape from possible extinction, could be brought about through thoughtful reallocation of funds.

There are many reasons for the pain and suffering that exist in the world. One can imagine such reasons laid out in order from more immediate causes (e.g. starvation and sickness) to those more fundamental but abstract (e.g. tendencies for power structures and greed to subvert human morality). All things being equal, a fundamental solution is preferable to a more immediate one, because in the long term it provides greater leverage. That is, we know a disease is better cured when its causes rather than its symptoms are alleviated.

However, it is far better to treat symptoms than to do nothing at all, or to mistakenly treat false causes as if they were real. Worse, historically many have caused additional harm even as they aim genuinely to help. The vast potential for such delusion is reason enough to focus on concrete and immediate causes of suffering: One can see and be sure of the real impact of one’s investment. There is little risk of causing harm. It is difficult to argue with spending money to make people’s lives better; and there is no doubt that you have indeed made the world a better place for many.

On the other hand, the burden of the intelligent and caring with ample resources is to strive to improve the world — not only for the world of our children, but for their grandchildren and those beyond. This is the legacy we leave behind. In adopting such a long-term perspective, there is cause to wonder whether over the course of many years the human race will not revisit its inequities in different forms; why is it that curable diseases require philanthropy to remedy in some locales in the first place? One might ask also if over time the species is not in increasing danger of exterminating itself — that is, weapons are increasingly powerful but human morality and reasoning remains flawed. Seen this way, reducing the risk of future inequity or of catastrophic outcomes might trump the most immediate improvement of life. Still, even if one believes this argument, the question remains what is to be done about it?

While I believe that the fundamental underlying problem is clear to identify, unfortunately it not easy to solve. In particular, there is a constant factor underlying humanity’s failure to rise above tribal differences, one that may significantly undermine reaching our potential as a kind and caring species: The wide variance in our morality. This factor in itself may be unsurprising, as it has been with us throughout our history, but the danger from it is compounding in the modern age. Put simply, we have entered an age in which our technology develops much more quickly than does our morality.

While morality has developed, it is a slow plodding cultural change over generations. And despite cultural progress many fundamental human imperfections remain systemically ingrained, due to the nature of our own brains, which are biologically biased towards selfish and short-sighted behaviors unsuited for the modern world. That is, the genetic basis of human behaviors are adapted to a context more brutal and primitive, and have been tinkered from simpler brains through millenia of natural evolution. The end effect is a layering of the most human aspects of ourselves upon baser animalistic drives.

Now, I do not deny that technological growth has made great things possible for humanity. Diseases once death sentences have become mere annoyances, and travel requiring months of danger now can be completed affordably in hours. There is nothing inherently wrong with accelerating technological progress. However, advancing technology also requires increased responsibility. For example, technology has enabled for the first time a capacity for a single action (a command to launch missiles) to decimate the planet. In other words, technology simply increases what is possible, without any morality of its own. The problem is that because technological growth has so soundly outpaced growth of morality, we as a species have become unworthy of the terrible responsibility of what our technology makes possible: Fallible politicians hold the world’s fate in their hands. Thus without significant moral development, the outlook of our species appears grim. As technology surges forward, ever expanding the possible manipulations of nature, it increases in parallel the magnitude of evil a misguided person, group, or nation may inflict.

From reading classic literature, it is clear that there is some understanding of our moral limitations as a species, of the strange human condition as a whole, and of the relative fixedness of that human condition over time. Adultery undid good men as often a hundred years ago as it does now; murderous passion and revenge are as relevant as they ever were. Of course we remain as capable as ever of great love and kindness, but our capacity for tribalism, violence, and greed, is also as ever unchanged. There exist economic incentives for technology to barrel ahead, to make new things possible, to make our lives easier, to enable new weapons; yet there do not exist similarly powerful incentives for careful reflection over what such advances will reap. Most importantly, there do not exist similarly powerful incentives for improving human morality. Ask yourself this: What has been more quickly adopted — cell phones, or equal treatment for sexual and racial minorities? Drone warfare, or the concept that the value of a human’s life does not depend upon its country of birth?

The main thesis is that it may be possible to apply science and technology to understand and improve human morality, and that this is a most critical human endeavor. Tinkering with morality itself is a weighty undertaking, and requires exceeding care and caution; however, if there were a medicine without side effects that could improve my ability to empathize with others, I would gladly take it. I am not advocating for some sort of misguided utopia, but a rational effort to aid overcoming our out-dated antisocial urges. Human fallibility and weakness are well-documented, both scientifically and historically, and such fallibility is largely the cause for systemic human suffering: It underlies genocides, world hunger, and poverty.

While technology offers the potential to increase human moral abilities, problematically there exists little economic incentive for such a research program currently; or at least, no incentive proportionate to its importance. Indeed, increased moral awareness could undermine consumerism, as a more caring human likely would more carefully weigh the price of an expensive cup of coffee against the real impact similar money could have on a human life in dire circumstances. This is where charity and passion are most needed: Where human progress and economic drivers clash.

The critical importance of timely focused research into improving morality can be illustrated by a simple concept called path dependence. The main idea is that history matters. In particular, the ordering of certain key events can determine the outcome’s quality. For example, imagine that it is inevitable that at some point technology will advance to the point that it becomes elementary for anyone to construct a massively destructive weapon. Knowledge has a tendency to leak, and technology has a tendency to render the previously impossible possible, so this is not an absurd possibility; that is, the mechanism by which a nuclear bomb operates is common knowledge (although luckily its construction still requires specialized equipment and materials). Imagine also, that another event is also inevitable given enough research: Uncovering a deep understanding of human morality and how to improve it. Now, you can see that the ordering of these two discoveries may critically influence the outcome of this imagined history. If the terrible weapon is discovered first, some deluded selfish individual will likely deploy it resulting in horrific casualties; we can call this outcome the morality apocalypse. However, if first humanity can remedy its morality on a large scale, the terrible weapon becomes less terrible.

I admit that this argument is speculative — and that it is light on the exact research trajectories that should be pursued (some thoughts deeper than mine are provided by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, and there are several articles by others as well describing “Moral Enhancement”). At the same time that this argument is speculative, it is hard to ignore the blazing success of technology, largely driven by economic interests, and in comparison, the relative stagnation of our own morality.

While we can and do romanticize the human condition and our poetic faults, it is harder to romanticize the terrible acts humans inflict upon humans as a result. I truly believe that technology can yet be the linchpin for human flourishing, but perhaps only if applied delicately to augment the quiet Jimminy Cricket on our shoulder, the one who we too easily can brush aside when pursuing our own interests at the expense of others, both here among our closest companions, and abroad among those who suffer but we have never met.

This cause, of improving morality through scientific or technological means, I believe is the greatest leverage point for charity to impact the world of our grandchildren, and I ask you to consider allocating some of your future funds towards research in the area.

With respect,

Incredible Discoveries Ten Years Later in Zelda Speedrun

There’s a fascinating speed run of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that made it onto metafilter, where the game is beaten incredibly quickly through an ingenious set of bug exploits that were gathered over the course of ten years.

I queued up the most interesting part of it on YouTube, where the speedrunner skips a huge part of the game through a difficult and technical exploit, and goes on to describe the elaborate twisted ways in which it works:

Crazy explanation of Speedrun as he continues to beat the game (watch a few seconds of this before you bounce off the page, my text isn’t nearly as interesting as this guy’s explanation.)

If you have the time, the whole video is pretty interesting. Ordinarily I wouldn’t watch something like this, but I got sucked it by the description of how the discoveries were made over the course of years, and how the speed run continued to evolve through a dedicated curious community.

What’s fascinating is the level of complexity and interesting discoveries hidden in just about any complex system, whether it be science, math, or even an old video game. It probably helps that I’m guessing this game had to be rushed out the door and perhaps had some inexperienced programmers working on it, which led to a more fascinating and strange world for speed-runners to explore.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The present strongly anchors how we think about the past and future states of the world. Think about it — because we live in the present and know it most intimately, we often distort the past and future by filtering it through the present moment. We only catch glimpses of the past through studying history, and subconsciously fill in the many gaps through our knowledge of the present. Similarly, because we can only guess at the future, we imagine it by extending the most visible current trends.

So we’re often unaware how pervasively the present influences our view the past or future. For example, the diamond engagement ring seems a long-standing tradition. Yet it was only in the 1930s that advertising agencies invented its appropriateness for middle-class wedding engagements. It’s almost equally surprising that in 1884, as was the convention, young FDR wore prim white skirts and sported shoulder-length hair — a gender-neutral outfit for children at the time — but odd through the lens of the present.

More central to the topic of this post, we might similarly believe that the ability of the average American to digest and reason about complex arguments is approximately equal to what it was in the past, or to what it might become in the future. Or, we might believe that if anything, our  cognitive abilities have tended to increase over our history.

However, perhaps after watching a film like Idiocracy, you may suspect that things may not in fact be so rosy. The film portrays a dystopian future in which stupidity is universal. The argument in the film is that if increasingly stupid people out-breed those that are smarter people, then stupidity may evolve to become dominant. While interesting, this trend would require many, many generations of evolution to be realized. Instead, I want to focus on a more subtle but fast-acting means for stupidity to spread.

It’s generally under-appreciated how strongly the evolution of media can impact our behavior. It’s not until later that we might  recognize how texting has shaped children’s development, or how ceaseless fountains of content like reddit or facebook train us. Is it easier to watch a funny video on YouTube or read a novel? Which might better develop our ability to understand the complexities of the world?

Media can influence how often and how deeply we think, and as a result, it can change how we understand and interact with the world. In this way, the rise of a flashy new medium, as it displaces old media, has the potential to significantly impact culture and behavior. For example, when the dominant medium of a culture is printed and spoken language, there is greater exposure to abstract arguments and thoughts, because the printed language is especially suited to book-length nuanced arguments.

Reading a book or article requires focused concentration. In contrast, a flashy largely-visual medium like television is more easily digested and often trades intellectual complexity for visual stimulation. A culture dominated by television may be much less exposed to abstract thought. And just as one becomes better at the things one does more often, the reading-based culture may be better at dealing with abstract arguments than the TV-based culture.

Television is well-suited to present us with highly-visual novel stimuli. We like seeing a succession of new flashy pretty entertaining things. TV does this much more effectively than a static text-based medium. Interestingly, the internet has taken flashiness and superficiality to new extremes. For example, while television shows were generally a half-hour long and have some plot or substance, a YouTube video can be thirty seconds long and consist of only a cat doing something funny. Taking this trend to a recent new extereme is the emergence of vine, a medium constraining videos to five seconds, a time length in which it is impossible to relate anything of intellectual substance. And yet it is addictive and fun to watch. It is amusing.

But let’s focus on television for now. With any medium there is coevolution between what viewers want or enjoy, and the products that companies provide through that medium. This is the free market at work. TV stations will attempt to give viewers what they want to maximize ad revenue. For example, a TV program that featured me reading the dictionary would draw few viewers, and few advertiser dollars. A TV program with lots of fuzzy kittens bouncing about might get more viewers, and more ad dollars.

An interesting dynamic is that if TV shows that offer mindless entertainment are in fact what humans are often drawn to watch, programming will likely shift in that direction. In Idiocracy, the most popular show, “Ow! My Balls!”, is a modern tragedy in which the protagonist suffers repeated and novel violence to his testicles. While not quite thoroughly as mindless, the rise of celebrity and reality TV offers similar unending easy-to-watch novelty with little intellectual stimulation. Their popularity suggests that such mindless fun is what many people want to watch. A TV station would be foolish not to play such material, even if everyone realizes at heart it is trash.

So, who’s to blame? Companies aren’t really to blame, because they are giving us what we want, after all. Are we to blame, for wanting what we want? It seems like we can’t help but want what we want; there is something about mindless fun, like a tasty dessert, that is hard to resist. Is television itself to blame? It is just a mindless medium, a potential means for dispersing information.

So it’s hard to understand how to address the underlying problem, which is that sometimes what we want isn’t what is best for us as a species. While mindless entertainment may be fun, if it hampers our ability as a culture to intelligently discuss issues, television may become a destructive force for humanity.

So what can be done? Awareness seems a necessary precondition for anyone to change how they interact with media. By becoming aware of  how media affects us, we can take a step back. We can observe TV (or websites such as facebook, youtube, or vine), we can catalog its effects upon us, and decide if we are happy with what habits and behaviors these new media breed within humans.

Ultimately, what I think we’ll find is that  our own human desires and weaknesses, while once manageable, become overwhelmed and exploited by new powerful technologies that like drugs give us exactly what we want and yet shouldn’t have: A ceaseless stream of entertaining, amusing, and largely empty content.


If this line of thought interests you, it is based on my reading of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a powerful book written in 1985 that explores the rise of radio and television, and the corresponding changes these new media imposed upon society and culture.

Book Review: Supernormal Stimuli

In caveman days, it was logical that we should be attracted to sugary and fatty high-energy foods; there might be a tough Winter coming, so when there was energy to be had, it was wise to consume it. Those health-conscious cavemen that ate salads in the stone-age might more likely go extinct than those gorging on meat.

However, in first-world countries, food is plentiful and it makes little sense to seek the fattiest foods when “foraging in the food court.” Yet we still do, which is causing a global obesity epidemic. This kind of conflict between our desires and what is good for us lies at the core of Deirdre Barrett’s book Supernormal Stimuli. The book describes the conflict between modern humans and the things designed to super-stimulate us — like all the tasty things we might find in a mall’s food court.

The basic issue is that our culture and technology evolve very quickly, while our genes evolve more slowly. So while food is now plentiful in most modern cultures, our genes are adapted to scarce food and hunting and gathering. But there is a devious twist to the evolution of culture. We desire high-energy foods, and so as technology and cooking have developed, they have found artificial ways of satisfying our desires, better than natural foods ever could. In other words, our desires drive the evolution of increasingly unhealthy foods, foods that “super-stimulate” our taste buds beyond any food we’d actually have adapted to eating (e.g. tens of thousands of years ago).

And the same principle holds for exploiting other human desires. For example, we are drawn to certain ideas of cuteness, which served an evolutionary purpose for us to be drawn to care and love our young. Characteristics include: large heads relative to bodies, large eyes, infantile personality traits (e.g. helplessness, innocence, affectionate behavior). Toys and cartoons have gotten exceedingly cute, driven to super stimulate this desire, just as objective news networks have been driven to celebrity gossip and fixation on national disasters driven by our attentiveness to drama.

Barrett makes a convincing case that modern society largely consists of stimuli adapted to exploit our desires. From the hours spent consuming more exciting versions of our own lives on TV, to browsing the web for its endless stream of new, if often trivial, content, to our habits of increasingly watching sports or activities instead of participating, superstimuli drive us to seemingly be less human, to engage less with real people or real situations, to increasingly consume instead of interact or produce.

The book as a whole is well-written, interesting, and I think the underlying message is of crucial importance to humanity. The state of the world is increasingly driven by these superstimuli to the detriment of human lives. At least in reading the book one can learn to be aware of the subtle ways that we are manipulated by technology, food, and culture.

Here are some particularly interesting quotes:

What sells is hardly random to biology. Anything that sells spectacularly well is probably some type of supernormal stimulus. The media commercially exploit these instincts, but they didn’t create them.


We seem to have enough responses to cuteness to burn. But we want to know when we’re doing so. Do we want to be spending as much as we do on toys? Do we want to buy products ’cause their mascots have big eyes or lisp in commercials?


It seems a normal part of growing up — for some, an ongoing part of life even after establishing real relationships. However, just a few generations ago, being in love with someone you’d never met, who lived thousands of miles away, or who’d died before you were born wasn’t normal — it wasn’t even possible: No media existed to support such fantasies. Crush responses were limited to people around you — though probably always stronger for the young and unattached, for women more than for men.”


Common men, and most academics, were unable to ask: ‘Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl?’ ‘Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend?’ ‘Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down?’ We don’t stop to imagine that things could be otherwise. James advocated that psychologists train themselves to ‘make the ordinary seem strange’ and ask why of any instinctive human act.’


Motorcycles and Cheesecake

What connects motorcycles and cheesecake?

Courtesy of Adam KinneyCourtesy of Isabelle Palatin

Both are  supernormal stimuli: Human creations designed to stimulate human senses beyond what we’ve encountered naturally during our evolutionary past. Driving a motorcycle is to taking a pleasant fall walk as eating cheesecake is to biting into an apple. In other words, supernormal stimuli are hyper-extreme sensations.

Riding a motorcycle is more exciting than walking, and cheesecake is richer than an apple. And while not all superstimuli are dangerous, these two examples are. The visceral danger of crashing a fast-moving and unsteady motorcycle is particularly vivid, however, the danger from the fat and sugar cocktail composing a cheesecake is equally real: Such foods contribute over time to metabolic syndrome (an epidemic in the US, and a general cause of obesity).

Because obesity leads to more overall deaths, slow-moving cheesecake is arguably more dangerous than a crotch rocket. The more general problem is that humans don’t pay much attention to slow-moving, incremental, dangers no matter  how serious they may be in reality (e.g. global warming vs terrorist atacks).

The danger of superstimuli foods comes from the disadvantage that normal stimuli like healthy foods have in comparison. They are generally not as tasty, and therefore it requires significant self-control to eat responsibly when superstimuli foods are cheap and readily available. Interestingly, the abuse of superstimuli foods is generally socially acceptable in spite of their inherent danger. We give our friends a hard time for smoking, but not for eating a donut; culture can be a bit short-sighted and capricious. Anyways, don’t think that I’m preaching here, I’m guilty of eating sweets as well: After all, I’m only human. Our human weakness is a part of us and makes the danger of superstimuli foods less avoidable. So if superstimuli foods are dangerous to humans, why have humans created them?

Superstimuli like motorcycles and cheesecake are a consequence of memetic evolution, or the evolution of ideas. Like natural evolution, where organisms compete with each other, in mimetic evolution ideas compete with each other for room in our brains. In the mind of a chef, various recipes may compete, and ultimately those recipes that are tastier and lead to more sales, will be those that the chef will make more often.

We go to a restaurant not to eat raw carrots, but for a delicious and often decadent meal. And people buy motorcycles for the same reason as they pay to go to theme parks, for the exhilarating rush they provide. Thus motorcycle manufacturers, like chefs adept at satisfying our taste buds, stay in business. In this way, capitalism, which is driven by human desires, produces cheap products that can undermine human health. So in a roundabout way, the nature of economics leads to a foods arm race playing off of human weakness.

I’m not saying that capitalism is evil, only that we must be aware of the evolutionary pressure capitalism can create. That is, capitalism can drive the creation of products that increasingly exploit our many human weaknesses.

Heart, Desire, and Walmart

It’s the double vision of a people whose hearts don’t like what their desires have created.

-Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone

I used to shop at Walmart, and I don’t judge those who still do. At the same time, it appears as if as a country we’d all be better off if Walmart was not around. Why?

Because the net effect of Walmart is to undercut small socially-responsible local businesses, to treat employees like replaceable cogs undeserving of reasonable benefits or of living wages, and to generally do anything (e.g. abuse the environment, use ingredients of questionable quality) to make products cheaper.

Now, I know bashing Walmart has become fashionable, and there are plenty of other badly-behaved companies. Still, Walmart is a particularly relatable example of how a company whose ideals are almost universally despised can yet flourish by skillfully feeding off of human desires.

I like to use the word feeding to describe Walmart’s success, because it puts us in the mind-frame to think of companies like Walmart as living organisms. We feed corporate organisms with our money; those that can profit from our investments tend to grow and thrive. Those that cannot profit tend to go bankrupt and die. Corporations are subject to evolution; only those that make money will survive. In particular, Walmart thrives because people cannot resist buying cheaper goods even when they disagree with how such low prices are achieved.

In other words, Walmart, like a drug addiction, is a product of human weakness. But we are not all to blame: Walmart carefully exploits our inherent weakness. The company does its best to insulate us from its practices. If we had to talk to workers who suffered because of lack of benefits and subhuman wages, saw the dirty kill-room floors and feces-caked animals, encountered warning labels about low-quality ingredients, or personally knew the long-time owners of family businesses forced extinct, we might not readily shop at Walmart.

Of course, for obvious reasons these undesirable images are hidden by the corporation, and when we shop there we are greeted simply by aisles of very affordable and nicely-packaged products. We can shop and comfortably buy without considering how those products came to be: The cloaked costs are not displayed on the shiny labels.

In the end however, when we honestly reflect on the rise of corporate organisms like Walmart, that we as humans feed, we can’t help but experience the double vision Franzen talks about in the opening quote. At our core, we don’t much care for the beast even as we continually sustain it.

Distributed Genetic Algorithm in C#

I’ve released a little software package on github that implements a distributed genetic algorithm in C#, using MongoDB as the backend database. Also included are a Unity client, in case you want to evolve physical simulations of things, and PHP code that facilitates writing task evaluation code in any language that can perform HTTP requests. The code is available at Hope someone finds it helpful!