Friday, February 02, 2018

Using interaction in a narrative media to enhance the focus on character perspective - sketching a high-level vision

I'm interested in a kind of narrative media where a primary focus (in the whole, or elements of it) is placing the 'player' within a character's shoes (immersion to foster empathy with the character), and where serving this goal is the primary focus of the interaction.  Computer games already use interaction to place the player within a character's shoes, but I think there's some directions they haven't yet explored.

What I'm interested in exploring (at some time, post-PhD) is a bit like a computer game, but not necessarily a game, and a kind of interactive storytelling, but not necessarily focused on a story.  I'll try to give a high-level view of these thoughts here.

A word of warning: this is all based on intuitions that I can't, at this moment, fully articulate or back up.  Seeing if anything could be made of these ideas could only be done by experimenting and actually trying them out.  In this post I'm trying to flesh out a kind of launching-off point for such experimentation.

Imagine a life pretty removed from our everyday modern lives.  Like a lowly worker on a sailing ship in the 17th century spice trade.  What was their day to day life like?  What sorts of activities did they undertake, and what was the character of those activities?  How did they see the world, and interact with the other people (of various stations and standings) on the ship?  What did they want out of life?  Imagine if you could see their day to day life through their eyes, and hear their thoughts, and use interaction to have a role in carrying out the activities they go through.  This the kind of thing I'm thinking of.

You could try doing this kind of thing as the main focus of the entire work, or it could be done here and there within a more conventionally narrative-focused work.  Again, experimentation would be required to see if either of those would work.

I suspect that the basic way of achieving the goal would be through something akin to quick-time events (QTEs), and the overall work being made up of QTE sequences.  The primary purpose of the QTEs would not be, as is sometimes the case, providing a challenge for the player, but placing the 'player' in the character's shoes.  To try to get them to perceive and think about the details presented to them in a different fashion to how they would the details in a novel or a movie, more like as if they were in that situation and getting more into the character's mindset.

Here's some thoughts about how this could be done.

(And yes, QTEs can suck, but I think there's scope for exploring different ways they can be implemented.  The devil is always in the details, and subtle differences can make all the difference in practice).

QTEs could be used in a more granular way, which would mean more frequent interactions.  The rationale for this is that the activities the character undertakes have a structure (there's a number of moment-to-moment steps the character undertakes to help set up a sail, for example), and if we want to place the 'player' in the character's shoes, then we want them to click/tap/swipe to "step through" each element of what the character is doing.

To help place them in the character's shoes, the 'player's perspective could be either a first-person one, or a third-person one such as an behind-the-shoulder one that provides a view of what the character is doing but which is still relatively-close to a first-person view.  So the QTE interactions would be presented from such a perspective.

As well as using the interactions to initiate elements of an activity, they could be used to shift where the character is looking or what they are focusing on.  So if they are reefing in some ropes but then need to look up to the sail to see how much of it has been pulled up, the 'player' could click to shift the character's perspective upwards.

There could be text labels on the QTE targets, indicating what the action is that the player will be initiating, to help them understand what the character is doing (or rather, about to do).

As well as, or instead of, such labels, there could be narration from the character, about what they are doing and/or thinking.  (There might also be a way to engage the 'player' by having them predict or anticipate what the character is going to do, and in some small way reward them for correctly doing so.)

A typical narrative tends to show only plot-relevant details.  What I'm thinking of could include more of the details that show what it's like to be in the character's shoes, such as showing the detailed steps of what they are doing in setting up the sails.  Such details would likely be tedious in a non-interactive format -- just detail after detail after detail*.  The hope is that such details can be interesting, rather than boring, if the player has an interactive role in carrying them out, and can comprehend what is going on (such as from the visuals, text labels, narration and clicking the targets when they are ready rather than it happening in real-time).

[*] I suspect that if you tried to present such details visually in a first-person format, it would be jarring and a bit incomprehensible, as the camera would need to jump around a lot, and without the interaction you wouldn't know where it was going to jump next.
The hope would be that we could show -- that is, demonstrate -- what the character's life is like.  That if, in effect, the player could experience what a day in the life of the character is like, they could see it from a perspective that they couldn't get by a more condensed or descriptive account of the character's life (like you'd get in a novel or movie).  Let them spend the time doing the work the character would be doing, let them get a true feel for how much rest time the character gets. 

Certain details are hard to appreciate without experiencing them yourself.  Like really appreciating how much of a particular kind of job involves X (e.g. paperwork or cleaning or just sitting around). Or on a grander scale, understanding the culture of a place, and understanding why people there hold certain beliefs or act in certain ways.  It's hard to convey this in a book or movie.  You need to have experienced the place yourself over a period of time.  Imagine if an interactive narrative experience could provide a sufficient proxy for actually experiencing such things, to the extent that it would allow the 'player' to appreciate such cultural details.  That is, at least, something to aspire to being able to achieve.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Burger recipe - Cemita Poblana with Pork Milanesa

This is based upon the Cemita Poblana with Pork Milanesa recipe.

This is a Mexican recipe - some background on it can be found on the original recipe description.  Technically you might call it a kind of sandwich, as it uses a pork chop rather than pork mince, but it comes across more as a burger by sight and taste.  And it's pretty good.  A crumbed, marinated pork chop combines well with avocado, pickled vegetables, and chipotle.

Note that the pork chops and vegetables for this recipe need to be marinated overnight.


Makes 2 burgers.

  • boneless pork chops, 2 x 140g
    sprinkled with sugar and marinated overnight in balsamic (alt: apple cider) vinegar
  • flour (or masa harina or bread crumbs), 1/2 cup
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • egg, 1, whisked
  • peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
  • hamburger buns, 2
  • ripe avocado, 1/2 (if it's a small avocado use a bit more of it)
    sliced, smashed or lightly mashed
  • chipotle chiles in adobo, 2, chopped
  • onions, carrots, and capsicum, all thinly sliced
    marinated overnight in vinegar and sugar to taste (you can substitute fresh onions and capsicum)
  • shredded queso panela or mozzarella cheese, 55g
  • rocket

Prep marinated pork chops

Pound the pork chops to flatten them to 1/2 inch or less.

Mix the flour (or masa harina or bread crumbs) with salt and pepper and place it on a shallow plate.

Dip the pork chops into the flour, dip it into the whisked egg, and dip in the breadcrumbs or back into the flour or masa harina. Set aside.


Cook chops

Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat and add oil to 1/4 inch. Test a small piece of pork to see if it sizzles.

Fry the pork in the pan for 4 to 5 minutes per side, until golden brown and cooked through, and place on a plate. Cover with foil.


Prep and toast buns

Turn the heat down in the pan to a medium-low heat (the exact temperature doesn't matter much), and wipe the fat and burnt bits out of it with a paper towel.

Cut the buns in half, and scoop out some of the bread from the top half to make more room for the fillings.

Toast the buns, cut side down, until they're lightly toasted. 


Assemble burger

On top of the bottom half of the bun, add the avocado, chopped chipotle, marinated vegetables, pork chop, queso/mozzarella, and rocket.  Add the top half of the bun and you're done.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Basic boil-then-bake BBQ pork ribs recipe

This is based on the Simple BBQ Ribs recipe.

This is easy to make.  The ribs are first boiled, then baked in an oven.

500g of ribs is enough for smallish portions for 2 people.  It could be enough for 2 mains if accompanied by some fairly substantial sides.  It's pretty easy to adjust the recipe for a greater amount of ribs.

  • pork ribs, approx 500g
  • garlic powder, 1/2 tbsp; OR garlic, 4 cloves, roughly chopped
  • salt, 1 tbsp
  • ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp
  • barbeque sauce, 1/2 cup

Boil ribs

Place ribs in a large pot with enough water to cover.

Add garlic, salt, and black pepper.

Bring water to a gentle boil, and cook ribs until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.


Bake ribs

Preheat oven to 165C (325F).

Remove ribs from pot, and lay them out flat in a baking dish.

Pour barbeque sauce over ribs.

Cover dish with aluminum foil, and bake in the preheated oven for 1 to 1.5 hours.


Note
  • There's two types of pork ribs: Loin back (aka baby back) ribs, and Spare ribs (aka St. Louis style spares).  The latter takes a bit longer to cook.  I believe I used the former type for this recipe (the packet of ribs I used didn't specify what type they were).  I would imagine that this recipe would work pretty well without any adjustments for both types.  Shops also sell "boneless" ribs, which aren't actually from the ribs area.  I'd use the proper kind of ribs for this recipe.  More details on the types of ribs here.

Variations

These are from comments on the original recipe.
  • The ribs can be boiled and coated in BBQ sauce in advance, and kept in fridge (e.g. in a zip-lock bag), or even frozen, until you're ready to bake them.
  • The liquid from boiling the ribs can be used to cook accompaniments in, and thus impart some flavour to them.  For example, boil some potatoes (to have whole or mashed) or other vegetables (e.g. carrots, beans, cabbage, broccoli) in it, or cook rice in it.
  • add various additional items to the water to cook the ribs in
    • some onion (about 1/2 an onion)
    • worcestershire sauce (about 1/2 tbsp)
  • before putting the BBQ sauce on the ribs, put them under a grill (or on a BBQ grill) for a few minutes.  Apparently this will make the meat texture more like grilled ribs.
  • at the very end, put the ribs under a grill (or on a BBQ grill) for a few minutes to give them a little bit of a char.
  • leave the ribs in the water for between an hour to a couple of hours after boiling it.  Periodically baste the ribs with more BBQ sauce.  I'm not sure what difference these make, as the results were quite good without doing either of them.

Burgers with Pork-and-Chorizo Patties, Pineapple and a Sriracha Aioli

This recipe is adapted from the Pork and Chorizo Burgers with Pineapple and Sriracha recipe.

The patties are made from a combination of minced pork and minced chorizo sausages.

Makes 6 burgers

  • smoked Spanish chorizo sausages, 225g, with the casings removed
  • pork mince, 455g
  • bread crumbs, 1/3 cup
  • egg, 1 large, beaten
  • scallions, 2, finely chopped
  • red capsicum, finely chopped, 2 tbsp
  • garlic, 1 clove, minced
  • cooking salt, 1/2 tsp
  • pineapple rings, about 1/2-inch thick, 6
  • hamburger buns, 6
  • fresh coriander leaves, as garnish
  • sriracha aioli
    • mayonnaise, 1/2 cup
    • garlic, 1 clove, pressed through a garlic press
    • sriracha chili sauce, 2 tsp
  • optional - asian-style coleslaw with shredded wombok (Napa cabbage) and carrots, sliced scallions and teriyaki salad dressing.


Sriracha aioli

Mix mayonnaise, garlic and sriracha sauce together in small bowl.  Taste and add more sriracha if desired.

(Extra aioli can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)


Patties

Finely chop chorizo in a food processor or with a large knife.

Gently mix together pork mince, chopped chorizo, bread crumbs, egg, scallions, capsicum, garlic and salt.

Shape into 6 patties about 3/4-inch thick.

I find this the best way to make patties.  It doesn't overwork the meat, and keeps it loosely-packed in the patties.

Lay some baking paper over a chopping board and pull apart the mince mixture onto it (you don't need to be finicky - just do a rough job of it), and gently spread it over the area.  Add some salt and pepper.

Instead of forming the mince into balls then flattening them out, just form the mince straight into patty-shaped discs.  Push a hole in the middle of each patty with your thumb, so it won't bulge up in the middle while cooking.  The baking paper makes it easy to pick the patty up to transfer it to the pan.

Refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes.


Cook patties and pineapple rings

At a medium to medium-high heat for 6 minutes, then flip patties and add pineapple rings to the pan.

Cook patties for approximately another 6 minutes, or until the internal temperature reads 70C using a probe thermometer.

Flip the pineapple rings once they're browned on the first side, and take them off when the second side is browned.


Toast buns

Turn the heat down in the pan to a medium-low heat (the exact temperature doesn't matter much), and wipe the fat and burnt bits out of it with a paper towel.

Cut the buns in half, and toast them, cut side down, until they're lightly toasted.


Assemble burger

You'll want the patties to have rested for about 5 minutes before you assemble the burger (so they aren't scorching hot, and so the temperature will be even within them.  Remember that the foil will keep them warm).

Put the patty on the bottom bun, followed by a pineapple ring and some coriander leaves to taste.  Add the optional coleslaw, if using.  Spread 1.5 tbsp of the sriracha aioli on the top bun, add the top bun to the burger, and you're done.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Burgers with pork-and-bacon patties and coleslaw

This recipe is adapted from the Perfect Pork Burgers recipe.

Minced bacon is added to the pork mince in the patties.  Surprisingly, you don't really taste the bacon flavour - it just works to enhance the flavour of the patties, and it does that really well.

  • bacon, 5 slices
  • garlic, 1 clove, minced
  • pork mince, 500g
  • cooking salt and freshly ground pepper
  • dried rubbed sage, 1/4 tsp
    • according to this page "Ground sage is made by grinding the entire leaf into a fine powder like any powdered herb. Rubbed sage is made by rubbing dried whole sage leaves to create a light and fluffy mix. Rubbed sage is lighter and less concentrated so a teaspoon of rubbed sage will be less intense than a teaspoon of ground sage."  So you might want to use a little less if you're using ground sage (i.e. sage powder), though I doubt it makes much of a difference whether you do or not.
  • freshly ground pepper
  • hamburger buns, 4, split
  • unsalted butter, softened, for spreading
  • coleslaw, for topping
    • you could use, for example, either of these two recipes.

Patties

Pulse the (raw) bacon and garlic in a food processor until coarsely ground.

Combine the pork mince, 1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper and the sage in a large bowl.
Add the bacon mixture and gently mix with your hands.

I find the following is the best way to make patties.  It doesn't overwork the meat, and keeps it loosely-packed in the patties.

Lay some baking paper over a chopping board and add the mince mixture in a rough layer over it

Gently form the mixture into 4 10cm-wide, 2.5cm-thick patties (these patties will be fairly large, so you may wish to make 5 or 6 patties from the mixture).

Push a hole in the middle of each patty with your thumb, so it won't bulge up in the middle while cooking.  The baking paper makes it easy to pick the patty up to transfer it to the pan.


Cook patties

Because the patties are pork and bacon, they need to be well-done inside.  The bacon will help to keep them moist, however.  Pre-heat the pan.  Cook, on a medium heat, for approximately 7 minutes on each side.

Loosely wrap the cooked patties in aluminium foil to let them rest.  Before you close up the foil you can sprinkle them with a bit of salt and pepper.


Toast buns

Turn the heat down in the pan to a medium-low heat (the exact temperature doesn't matter much), and wipe the fat and burnt bits out of it with a paper towel.

Cut the buns in half, spread a bit of butter on them, and toast them, cut side down, until they're lightly toasted.


Assemble burger

You'll want the patties to have rested for about 5 minutes before you assemble the burger (so they aren't scorching hot, and so the temperature will be even within them.  Remember that the foil will keep them warm).

Put the patty on the bottom bun, add a fairly generous amount of coleslaw, then finish it off with the top bun.

Beef burgers with a bacon-sauerkraut jam

This recipe is adapted from the Burgers with Bacon-Sauerkraut Jam recipe.

The flavours in this burger work in perfect harmony.

  • beef mince, 500g
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • burger buns, 4
  • rocket or baby lettuce, 1 cup
  • gouda cheese, 4 slices
  • sauerkraut-bacon jam
    • thick bacon (streaky bacon works well), 225g
    • reserved bacon drippings or butter, 2 tbsp
    • red onion, chopped, 1/2 cup
    • sauerkraut, drained and chopped, 1 cup
    • apple cider or apple juice, 1 cup
    • cider vinegar, 1 tbsp
    • brown sugar, 1/3 cup
    • celery seed, 1/2 tsp
    • paprika, 1/2 tsp 

Bacon-sauerkraut jam

Cook bacon until crisp, then crumble it.  Reserve 2 tbsp of the bacon drippings (or just use butter).

Saute the onion in the bacon drippings (or butter) until soft, then stir in remaining jam ingredients along with the bacon.

Simmer jam over low heat 30-45 minutes or until thick.  Makes one cup of jam.


Patties

I find this the best way to make patties.  It doesn't overwork the meat, and keeps it loosely-packed in the patties.

Lay some baking paper over a chopping board and pull apart the mince onto it (you don't need to be finicky - just do a rough job of it), and gently spread it over the area.  Add some salt and pepper.

Instead of forming the mince into balls then flattening them out, just form the mince straight into patty-shaped discs.  Push a hole in the middle of each patty with your thumb, so it won't bulge up in the middle while cooking.  The baking paper makes it easy to pick the patty up to transfer it to the pan.


Cook patties

To your desired doneness.  Five minutes on each side at a medium-low heat (remember to pre-heat the pan) should get them reasonably well done.

Loosely wrap the cooked patties in aluminium foil to let them rest.  Before you close up the foil you can sprinkle them with a bit of salt and pepper.  If you like your cheese melted, you can add a slice on top of each patty before closing up the foil.


Toast buns

Turn the heat down in the pan to a medium-low heat (the exact temperature doesn't matter much), and wipe the fat and burnt bits out of it with a paper towel.

Cut the buns in half, and toast them, cut side down, until they're lightly toasted.


Assemble burger

You'll want the patties to have rested for about 5 minutes before you assemble the burger (so they aren't scorching hot, and so the temperature will be even within them.  Remember that the foil will keep them warm).

Put the rocket (or lettuce) on the bottom bun (be pretty generous with it, as it will squish down a fair bit when the burger is fully assembled), the patty on top of that, then the cheese (if you haven't already put it on the patty).  Spread a generous amount of the bacon-sauerkraut jam on the cut side of the top bun, add the top bun to the burger, and you're done.

Beef burger with anchovy butter

This recipe is adapted from the Minetta Tavern-inspired anchovy burger recipe.

I was surprised by how well this simple recipe works.  The anchovy butter doesn't give the burger any noticeable anchovy taste.  It just really lifts the flavour of the beef patty.

  • beef mince, 500g
    • this is enough to make 4 or 5 burgers. The instructions are easily modified for making different quantities.
  • anchovy fillets in oil (one anchovy per burger)
  • unsalted butter, at room temperature.
  • sea salt
  • hamburger buns

Anchovy butter

You'll want enough butter to fairly generously spread over the top and bottom half of each bun (so maybe around 2 tbsp per burger), and one anchovy per burger.

Mince those anchovies, and mix them well into the butter.


Patties


I find this the best way to make patties.  It doesn't overwork the meat, and keeps it loosely-packed in the patties.

Lay some baking paper over a chopping board and gently pull apart the mince onto it (you don't need to be finicky - just do a rough job of it), and gently spread it over the area.  Add some salt and pepper.

Instead of forming the mince into balls then flattening them out, just form the mince straight into patty-shaped discs.  Push a hole in the middle of each patty with your thumb, so it won't bulge up in the middle while cooking.  The baking paper makes it easy to pick the patty up to transfer it to the pan.


Cook patties

Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat, letting it get fairly hot.
Cook the patties for 3 minutes on each side.  You want to get a nice caramelised crust on them.

Loosely wrap the cooked patties in aluminium foil to let them rest.


Toast buns

Turn the heat down in the pan to a medium-low heat (the exact temperature doesn't matter much), and wipe the fat and burnt bits out of it with a paper towel.

Cut the buns in half, and toast them, cut side down, until they're lightly toasted.


Assemble burger

You'll want the patties to have rested for about 5 minutes before you assemble the burger (so they aren't scorching hot, and so the temperature will be even within them.  Remember that the foil will keep them warm).

Spread the top and bottom halves of the buns with the anchovy butter.
Add the burger patty to the buns, and you're done.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The value of basic research

I believe that basic research has far more value to society than is generally recognised.  I think it is severely undervalued, across pretty much all segments of society, including many people who work at research institutions such as universities.  And I believe this is because people misunderstand its nature, and have the wrong framework for thinking about its value.

In this post, I want to do some initial 'gathering of my thoughts' on this topic.

Basic or applied research is intended to uncover some new knowledge or develop some new technology (so what I'm talking about also includes basic research as part of developing devices and products).  Central to the misunderstanding of basic research is the idea that you should evaluate the potential value of some research by looking at what problems it would solve.

So obviously when it comes to applied research this is how we evaluate any proposed research.  Basic research, on the other hand, is by definition not about solving specific real-world problems.  This doesn't seem to stop people from wanting justifications for the research on the basis of what sorts of real-world problems its results could be applied to.  And because basic research isn't focused on solving problems it is typically seen as being about "satisfying curiosity".

So basic research doesn't seem very valuable.  It's hard to think of the specific real-world problems it's going to solve, and framing it as "satisfying curiosity" makes it seem of little real-world use, and certainly not something deserving of significant amounts of precious governmental funding.

Seeing the value of potential research in terms of solving real-world problems sounds good.  Who wouldn't want to solve real world problems?  Isn't anything else being self-indulgent?  But, I argue, while this sounds good in principle, it is a lot more problematic than it seems in actuality.


Before I start talking about this framing of basic research, I want to argue that, even for applied research, "what real-world problems could this solve" isn't actually a particularly good way to evaluate potential research.   For starters, remember that we're talking about potential value here.  It's all well and good to make claims about what sorts of problems the research is going to be potentially useful for.  But we have to remember we're talking about a claim, not the actual reality.  We're talking about a prediction, not what pans out.  It's very easy to claim some research is going to be useful for some problem, but the real, important question is, does it actually turn out to be useful for it?  People are notoriously poor at making predictions.  The world is very complex, and we are working with very limited information and aren't very good at making predictions with it.  I would bet that a high percentage of research that is claimed to be for solving some particular problem doesn't turn out to be useful for it.  You might respond, but that's just the nature of research, what better alternative is there?  My answer to that it is better to evaluate the potential of the researcher rather than the claims of what problems the research is going to address.  There's been calls for this in science funding.  And this is a lesson that's been learned in the (roughly) post-2000 start-up world (e.g. how Y Combinator evaluates applications made to it), which I think is applicable to research (starting a startup is a kind of research task, basically in figuring out what customers want).


Back to evaluating the value of potential basic research.  The key to the perspective I'm arguing for is to understand how research (whether basic or applied) provides value.  I am arguing that "what problems it solves" is too narrow a perspective, and that the value it provides comes from what it enables.

To see what I mean by "enables", consider any historical advance that was made through some research, and consider what, if that advance was deleted from history, would not have been practically possible.  If calculus had never been invented, how much of the modern world would not have been able to exist?  What if Newton's laws of physics was deleted from history?  Darwin's theory of evolution?  Quantum mechanics?  The wheel?  The ability to make things from iron?  The printing press?  And so on.  I think we would find that the answer would amount to "a hell of a lot".  The research that developed these ideas weren't developed for creating any of the myriad of ways they enable the fabric of modern society, but they were all essential components that enabled those elements of that fabric.

The positive effects of research spans far beyond any problems they were created to solve.  In fact, I would argue that the positive effects they have by enabling other developments far outweigh whatever they may have been explicitly created to solve.  This is because when we talk about solving problems, we're usually talking about one specific kind of application, but when we talk about what some development enables, we are talking about systemic benefits it has, and systemic benefits are deeper, more widespread, and cumulative.

(Hindsight can obscure this.  In hindsight, we can talk of the problem that something like the printing press solves, because we are so deeply familiar with the world that the printing press (eventually) enabled.  But at the time things are never this clear, and typically, these things that are so valuable in hindsight because of the systemic changes they enable, are seen by most people as pretty useless).


It will help us if we flesh out this picture of new ideas and technology enabling other developments.  There is first-order enabling, where an idea or technology enables some other idea or technology to be developed.  There is second-order enabling, where an idea or technology enables some other idea or technology to be developed, which in turn enables yet other ideas or technology to be developed.  And in this fashion, there is third-, forth-, fifth- (etc) order enabling.  What we are acknowledging here is how complex the web is of the growth of our knowledge and technology.  Ideas and technology build on other ideas and technology.  The greater then number of previous ideas and technology you have, the more you have to build on, and the more the frontiers of knowledge and technology expand.

If you look at at some technology or knowledge that is vital to the modern world, the web of technologies and knowledge that led up to it (and enabled it) go back a very long way.  If you examine that web you'll see that those necessary components come from all over the place.  Different ideas or technologies, which were developed at quite different times from each other, by people working in different domains, who developed the knowledge or ideas for quite different purposes. Typically they were seen as having little value when they were first developed.

(The documentary series Connections, by James Burke (Amazon link), provides a pretty good illustration of this process).


The processes of developing new technologies or knowledge is a combinative one, in the sense that it it builds on combinations of existing technologies and pieces of knowledge. Basic research provides new building blocks for this combinative process to work with, providing the potential to enable new nth-order developments down the line.

It's not possible to predict where and how a particular piece of knowledge or technology may play a combinative role in enabling some new technology, and thus how useful it will turn out to be.  It is, rather, a statistical matter.   You can know the overall properties of the process.  We can know that, creating new such pieces will overall lead to important developments.  We can know that there is value to developing new pieces of knowledge or technology because they increase the number of building blocks that provide potential combinative enablers to useful developments.

Research funding for basic research should be seen more like investing in the stock market.  People who invest know that it's a statistical matter: you can't be sure that any individual stock is going to pay well.  You know that you need to diversify, and make a number of smaller bets.  That overall, the stock market tends to lead to returns.  We should be looking at basic research more as an overall endeavour.


The way that basic research is currently funded is analogous to central planning in an economy.  It assumes that people can effectively evaluate what is good research to do.  And of course, my argument is that, just like with economies, this can't be done.  Central planning sounds good on paper, but leads to worse results.

We might ask, how are we meant to choose what basic research to fund, if it is all potentially useful?  One part of the answer is one we mentioned earlier: to fund the researcher rather than the research project.  That is, to find ways to evaluate the potential of the researcher.  Again, this is something that has already been proposed.

Another part of the answer ties in with a concern people have about the perceived lack of utility of basic research, which we might call the "number of angels dancing on the head of a pin" concern.  This concern is that basic research will lead to utterly useless kinds of investigation that clearly can have no real-world value.  I think that a lot of this concern comes less from research done in science and more from certain sorts of research done in philosophy.  The philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has written a good (and readable) paper how to distinguish between useful and less-useful kinds of basic research (in philosophy), called Higher-order truths about chmess [PDF] (Google search).  As a general rule, I believe that we can avoid the generally-useless kinds of basic research if we focus on trying to understand something new about what exists in reality, or try to develop something new in our ability to manipulate what exists in reality.  This rule does not provide any guarantees, but remember that the overall process of basic research is where the value lies.  We should see any such input to that process that fits this rule as having intrinsic value as something to look into.


To summarise, instead of seeing basic research in terms of the framing of "what problems does this solve" or as merely "satisfying curiosity", we should see basic research as providing new inputs that can help enable new developments in the statistical, overall process of knowledge/technological development.  In this role, history clearly shows it is of tremendous value to society.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Transportation between floors in buildings: combining hop-on-anytime with small horizontal footprint

Convenience plays a massive role in our behavior.  Often if there's the tiniest amount of friction, and the effort required rises above a fairly low bar, we won't bother.  Or at least this post is going to assume that's the case.

Here's a way convenience impacts our use of space, which suggests a new mode of specialised transport between floors in buildings.  For the sake of simplicity I'll consider this in the context of shopping.

Lets consider shopping spaces that are distributed over multiple floors.  There are three ways of transporting people between floors: stairs, escalators (I'll lump inclined travelators in with these), and lifts.

These have various trade-offs.  Stairs require the most physical effort, while escalators and lifts require very little.  In normal circumstances, stairs and escalators don't require any waiting to use, whereas a lift will typically require a wait before getting in.  Stairs and lifts can be packed into fairly small horizontal spaces.  For lifts it's basically the horizontal dimensions of the lift itself.  A spiral staircase, or a 'square' staircase (where each flight keeps making a 90 degree turn), can be fairly compact in their horizontal dimensions.  Escalators tend to require a fair amount of horizontal space (they're lengthy).

As far as convenience goes, we can take stairs out of the picture (despite how good they might be for people's health).  That leaves escalators and lifts.  Escalators are very convenient as you can always just hop on them, but they take up a fair bit of horizontal space.  Lifts take up little horizontal space, but you often have to wait to use one. 

In terms of speed, escalators are adequate as long as you only have a few floors to traverse, whereas lifts can be much faster if you have many floors to traverse.

So for a typical multi-floor shopping center, escalators will be your main between-floor transport system.  There's only a handful of floors, so the speed of escalators is adequate, and it's just much more convenient to be able to hop on at any time (plus there's ample room for trolleys).

But what about smaller multi-floor buildings, like you might find on the main street of a smaller town?  Ones that don't have room for escalators (or where it's not worth using the amount of room it would require for an escalator).  (Of course, cost is another factor, but we'll leave that aside for the moment).  They could install a lift, but I think the friction of having to wait for the lift would be too much for the average customer. (And the friction of stairs is going to be too much to have a different set of shops on the second floor).  I suspect this is a contributing factor to why multiple floors often aren't utilised for stores in such situations.  Sometimes you might have the one small store over two floors, but you are less likely to see separate stores on the second or third floor.

What would ideal would be something that has the hop-on-anytime property of escalators but which takes up a smaller amount of horizontal space than they do.

Think of this as setting the requirements for a kind of design challenge.

One design possibility would be where there were vertical shafts running between floors, one carrying platforms up and another carrying platforms down.  The platforms would be like a lightweight form of a lift.  Instead of being an enclosed capsule, they'd just be platforms with railings.  The railings would be designed to fold up, so that so multiple such platforms could be stored in a recessed fashion at each floor, so a person can pretty much always walk up and use one.  They'd be stored there folded up and automatically unfolded for use.

(Another possibility would be a tightly-wound spiral escalator.  As in, a spiral escalator with a small circumference. Spiral escalators exist, but they are quite large, with shallow curvatures.  I suspect a problem with a tightly-wound spiral escalator would be that, even if it could be engineered, it would be a bit disorienting for the rider to be rotating so fast).

Of course, that's just a rough bit of speculation, and the big question is whether a practical system meeting these requirements (of hop-on-anytime and small horizontal footprint) could actually be built.  Another big question is whether it could be cost effective.

What interests me is, if they could, whether it could change the way we use space.  Could it increase the convenience enough such that there would be viable uses of spaces that otherwise would not be viable because of not being sufficiently convenient?  I can imagine applications like making use of multiple floors in smaller retail spaces, that otherwise just wouldn't be convenient enough.  Or perhaps a more convenient way to get between floors in smaller-horizontal-space areas could help people in companies spanning multiple floors communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fact checking and linking to supporting evidence

With all the talk about 'fake news' and the spreading of lies and misinformation on social media, the idea of fact checking has been thrown about a bit.

In this post I'd like to try to situate fact checking within a broader context.  I've spoken before about "Improving the spread of truth in the information ecosystem".  The basic idea is that we want to find ways to help the truth spread, and to hinder the spread of falsehoods.  In that post I gave some fact checking sites as examples of initiatives in this area.

To me, what fact checking is about is trying to enable people to create explicit connections -- links -- between claims and evidence.  Fact checking is where you're doing so to check someone else's claim, to see whether it holds up.  But connecting claims and evidence also includes where you're using evidence to substantiate your own claims.

The ideal situation, in my view, would be where whenever someone makes a claim, they also try and link to sources that substantiate that claim.  Where the default is to always try to show evidence.

This, of course, would not be easy to achieve.  But it's worthwhile considering how we can make it as easy as possible to for this to be done.

What I'm suggesting might sound like the way that scientific papers cite sources.  I actually think we can do better than this.  1) usually whole papers are cited, and these are often too granular.  You have to dig around in the paper to find the bit specifically related to the claim being made, and do a bit of reverse engineering to see why/how that claim was being arrived at in the paper.  2) papers aren't laid out with the intention of clearly showing the evidence supporting the specific claim.

I'm thinking of a setup where a person could link to a web-page that is specifically devoted to the evidence for a particular claim, which might link to other such pages for sub-claims.

The end-goal would be having substantial numbers of people -- volunteers and those supported by institutions -- focused on creating such pages.  And where there was a norm whereby people would always try to link to substantiating evidence whenever they make a non-trivial claim (where you'll at least feel uncomfortable when you don't do this).

Of course the big question is, how could we get to such an end-goal?  I don't think it'd be easy.  I think if it were to happen, it would be drawn-out process, involving small, piece-meal steps forwards.

Momentum would need to grow.  I can imagine more and more datasets and statistics being put online, and then people utilising these create pages showing the evidence for specific claims based upon these (ideally, and whenever possible, they would show their claims as being the results of queries on the datasets, queries that could easily be independently verified).  The more that such a thing is done, the more the idea of doing such a thing has the potential to spread.

Sources of such information would need to establish their integrity.  So they are known as being a trustworthy source of evidence on claims.  Ideally they would be non-partisan, though that obviously couldn't practically be done for all claims.

In addition to making the information available that shows the support for particular claims, we'd also need to make it much easier to find and make use of this information.  To lower the friction involved in linking to it.

This is a large topic in itself, but here is an example of what I'm thinking of: auto-suggesting evidence sources and particular claims, through the use of machine learning.  Think of a particular forum where people discuss a topic, such as politics.  It might be a sub-reddit on politics.  A machine learning tool could analyze the text of all the discussions on the forum to get a sense of the kinds of topics discussed, and to get an idea of what evidence sources are relevant to the forum.  Whenever a forum member goes to write a comment, it could use the context of the comment they are replying to (and what it is replying to, and so on), plus the comment-text the member has written so far, to suggest possible claims (and evidence pages for them) that the member might be making.

I have no idea how far away we are from a sufficiently-effective tool of this sort -- it's just meant as an illustration of how we might be able to lower the friction for linking to supporting evidence.