Saturday, November 30, 2013

High-Level, Low Level

I think it’s fair to say I write a lot about psychology.  Or, at least, I turn my relatively unartful hand to the subject, and try to get some things right.  If they can’t be right, I at least try to make them helpful.

Every now and then I have identity crises regarding this blog.  It’s very much about growing and the mindsets we adopt when competing.  I like writing about game design (I should do more of that) and I like giving concrete advice about steps you can take to improve either your attitudes, your feelings, or your performance.  Most of that advice comes from my experience and observation, which means it falls far short of infallible.

Some people find it useful or inspirational.  Some have read the words, used them, and then improved.  Then again, most people on this planet aren’t reading it, but managing to improve anyhow.

One thing I think about, when writing about psychological stuff, is how little I really know about the brain.  You might think this is actually a bit scary; who am I to give advice, if that's the case?  But I think it’s remarkably similar to how good I am at some video games, compared to how little I know about programming, circuit boards, electrical engineering.  The main difference is that there’s no evidence that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to psychological stuff, other than the occasional person saying "that's so true." But they say that about horoscopes.  Sigmund Freud is one of the most recognized names in psychology, but he guessed at how brains and minds worked, and he got a lot of stuff wrong.

This introduction--besides attempting to destroy your faith that anything on this blog is worth reading--is meant to make a point, which is that there is a difference between high-level knowledge and low-level knowledge.  What do I mean by this?

Low-level refers to things on a fundamental level.  Not just the first floor of a building, but the concrete foundation beneath it.  If we start at a fairly high-level--your heart pumps blood--then go lower, we start talking about how the muscles contract, then we might talk about the way impulses trigger those heart muscles to do so, then we might talk about the biochemical whatevers that make those impulses happen.  Each time you go down a level, you describe things in a more nuts-and-bolts kind of way.

Low-level learning is how you create and manipulate.  You might to choose to learn more about the coding of your particular video game so you can understand and play it better.  You might choose to learn more about programming so you can make your own games.  You might choose to learn how computers actually work so you can make your own programming language.  You might learn about circuits and electrical engineering and chemistry so you can build better computers.  And so on.

The most fundamental skill that I can think of, at a guess, is pure mathematics.  Mathematics is nothing less than the study of how things relate to one another, how they equate.  By understanding math, you find ways to describe and predict natural phenomena at progressively higher and lower levels.  It’s possible, once our computers are impressive enough, that we will have ways to describe nearly (if not actually) everything in terms of numbers.

Higher-level means that you have chunked that lower-level stuff and group them into categories.  In short, it’s a way of skipping all the math and getting things to work.  It’s one of the miracles of our brains, in fact, that we don’t see everything as a big collection of numbers and probabilities.  You could calculate the current velocity of an oblate spheroid, modify its short term changes by gravity, the likely horizontal travel distance (don’t forget to calculate air-resistance) and pinpoint its location in the next two seconds (you know, “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom*,” times two).  Then you would calculate the necessary energy cost of repeated biomechanical transactions of the lower-body, modified by current weight and momentum, then the necessary flood of chemicals and electrical impulses to trigger the muscular interactions that lift your arm and extend the fingers.  Then, during a span of fractions of a second, judge the necessary force to apply to the surface of the oblate spheroid to prevent it from exceeding the coefficient of friction multiplied by the surface area of your fingers and palm, based on its rebound velocity off your hand, calculated by considering a bunch of other stuff.

Or you could catch a ball.

It’s miraculous that we are able to take--using the scientific term--a metric crapton of information and convert into behaviors which we consider mind-bogglingly simple.  “Just catch it!  What’s the big deal?”  The big deal?  Do you know how complicated reality is?!  It seems like a joke that so much can be going on, but then I will have the audacity to write a blog where I discuss concepts of self-worth and value, and how that turns into emotion and focus, and how that turns into your ability to compete with other people.  Then I’ll tell you “this is how it really works.”

And yet we all have this ability.  We have the magic power, repeatedly and consistently, to condense bajillions of bits of information into singular packets, then convert that information into proper action to achieve given goals.  If there is an omnipotent and omniscient being out there, one that knows really everything, I think the ability to process all levels of information at once is far more impressive and scary than the fact that it knows you like really weird porn.

We are darn near magical at converting low-level to high-level.  We are not as naturally talented at doing it the other way; it takes a lot of work, a lot of being wrong, a lot of refining.  You have to be careful when somebody tries to convert high-level observations into statements about low-level functioning.  When somebody says, “we seem to have a sense of worth tied to our performance,” you might nod your head and say “that kind of makes sense.”  When he he tells you “this means we probably have a sense-of-worth-molecule-imbalance, and that you will increase worth molecules by drinking pickle brine.  Pickle brine appears to have a high concentration of worth molecules in it, and I know this because I drank it once and I didn’t feel sad later,” you may consider running for the door.  Until somebody has done the legwork, has actually dug deep and explored the mechanisms, has combined observation with prediction and come up with a fairly reliable model, you shouldn’t trust explanations that run from high to low.  Even if they seem to make intuitive sense.

It’s very easy for one person to go, “higher level is better, it means you’re actually living,” or somebody else to say “lower level is better, it means you actually understand things.”  The stance you adopt will probably depend on your job, or your major, or whether your third grade math teacher was an asshole. We don't want to be people that "know the price of everything and the value of nothing," but we also don't want to live in a world of fuzzy thinking and ignorance.

For my part, I'm a filthy, dirty, fence-sitter.  I like both ends of the spectrum, and all the stuff in between.  This is because without people that understood electronics, I wouldn’t have video games to play, but video games are made to be played, enjoyed, and perfected.  I think chefs learn what the perfect temperature is for cooking so people can enjoy delicious meals, and that chemists study the properties of different materials so we have better cookware (because chemists like tasty food).  Mathematicians have feelings and psychologists use algebra.  When I observe behavioral differences in different situations, and guess at the interactions of the feelings and beliefs that lead to those behaviors and their results, I hope it turns into better higher-level action while encouraging people to pursue lower-level understanding.

With any luck, this is what actually happens when I write my blog.  Identity crisis solved, for now.

Thanks for reading.

* -- thanks Wikipedia.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Who Is Your Best Friend?

How do you become good at something?  Whether you’re talking about life or games, what is the thing that teaches you the most?

The answer is adversity.  Challenge.  Opponents, rivals, circumstance, restrictions. You act against the challenge, and receive feedback. That information tells you how to act differently, and that is how you acquire skill.

You might be inclined to answer “teachers,” but they can’t teach you much without also setting up challenges for you to overcome.  You can’t really learn unless there’s an opportunity to fail.  Even being asked a question, “what is two plus two?” has a failure parameter of failing to demonstrate, in some manner, the number four.  The consequence of failure may vary, but the success or failure remains. A teacher can help the process along (or hinder it, if they're bad) but ultimately it comes down to you, responding to a challenge.

I would argue that a skill comes down to three basic parts: recognition, decision, and execution.  Recognition involves seeing the situation and understanding it.  Decision-making involves deciding on a response to the situation.  Execution means performing the response successfully.  Each of these elements is trained under a circumstance where you have the opportunity to fail.  A skill’s difficulty represents the range of actions--in all three categories--that leads to improperly performing the skill.  If you can’t possibly interpret the situation incorrectly, or make an incorrect decision, or execute in a way that leads to failure, the skill is infinitely easy.  If there is no range to interpret, decide, or execute correctly, then the skill can be considered impossible.

The way that we grow at skills is by testing the boundaries of failure with our bodies and minds.  Adversity, challenge, and restrictions impose those boundaries on us, and teach us to act within them.  If we’re interested in growing on our own, then we have to impose those things on ourselves somehow.  When you’re playing any kind of game with an opponent, then your opponent is the person who helps impose those boundaries upon you.

Which is why, of all the people you interact with, it will be your opponents, your challenges, and your adversity that are your best friends.  They will give you the feedback necessary for success, by demonstrating to you where you have failed and succeeded.  They let you know you can grow and change and improve and strive. Whether it's the environment forcing you to become stronger to survive, or somebody challenging your viewpoint in a debate, or a sportsman opposing you on the field, they force you to examine where you are lacking and pick up the slack.

It’s why it can be difficult to become highly-skilled without a strong community of opponents around you.  The main skills that people tend to master under these circumstances are often mechanical, and even then those tend to have holes.  If you don’t know that something will fail against a live opponent, you can’t really incentivize yourself to improve or change that thing.  You can be paranoid and obsessive, but odds are something will slip through.

You also want to trust that your community is interested in helping you get better.  If you want to be stronger, it helps to have strong rivals.  Strong rivals are not necessarily bred through hiding information from them.  If you can go out of your way to engineer an environment that challenges you, you can improve further.  (In nature you might call the rigors of a challenging environment “selection pressures,” because those rigors determine which characteristics increase the odds of survival).

Please note that this kind of attitude actively opposes continued, guaranteed success.  By shrinking the boundaries of your successful skills and making it harder to act within them, you increase the odds of failure.  That’s what it means to increase difficulty.  Increasing skill at something increases the odds you will act within the boundaries of defined success.  So if you want to continue growing and increasing skill, you must shrink your boundaries of success, and then improve your ability to act within those boundaries by learning and training.  If real-life resources come into play, and you don’t want to risk losing (or failing to obtain) them, then growth ends up taking a backseat to continued success.  Of course, if you can improve your skills you will be more likely to succeed over time, but if failing now is not an option for you, then you might deliberately avoid a bigger challenge.

If that isn’t the case, if you really want to continue improving and developing yourself, then you need help from your best friend.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Assume There Is Something More

I don’t know how many of my blog readers play chess with any frequency, but I’m confident most of you are familiar with the game.

One way that people will improve is by trying to solve chess problems, arranged situations with some kind of prompt like “black checkmates white in five moves” or something.  What do you do when you’re given that problem?  You start looking for ways to set up a checkmate.  Duh.  Even if it doesn’t look like you can checkmate them right away, if the person is interested in solving the puzzle they will say, “oh so I guess you do something weird to make it happen.”  So they keep checking, start exploring weird options, strange gambits, sacrifices.  They just try things that look stupid on the surface, if only because they exhausted the “smart” options already.

The reason they do this is because they know that an answer exists.  But if they had been playing in a regular game, they might have just played on without looking.

This is interesting to me.  It’s interesting because a solution exists whether you believe it’s there or not; however, you are significantly more likely to find them when you believe they exist.  Because somebody stops you for two seconds and says, “by the way, you have a winning position, eight moves,” and it makes you go, “wait, what?  Really?”  Then you look, actually look, and see that it's true.  Please remember that phrase.  Actually look.  It's important.

The inverse of this, the trap, is the pig prank.  Where you catch three pigs, and paint them with the numbers 1, 2, and 4, then release them in a building somewhere.  Then once people have caught the pigs, you watch them spend hours looking for the one with the number 3 on it.

Assumptions dictate behavior.  The assumption that you can improve, succeed, and find solutions in almost any scenario is extremely powerful.  It’s what causes you to actually look.

The thing is, we are often waiting for somebody to come by and tell us “you can checkmate the other guy in five moves.”  That’s what it takes for us to start looking.  Somebody has to sit us down and say, “this matchup is winnable, if you focus more on this aspect of it.”  Or, “if you use this move right, you can outprioritize this move of his,” before we even start looking for ways to make it come true.

It’s ironic that I’m writing this post.  For the short period I played Brawl, I just kind of messed around and didn’t take the game very seriously.  I picked Wario, because I thought he was silly and fun, and I just messed around and lost a lot.  Then I decided to look at a tier list, and saw that (at the time) he was rated 3rd best.  So I thought, “oh, I’m supposed to be winning,” and then I just started playing better.  I started assuming that my character had tools to cope and win, and then I started finding and using those tools.  Go figure that I had to wait for a list to tell me it was possible before I believed it.

The opposite happens with many people, where they think “oh it’s because my character is low-tier that I lost here,” yet there are handfuls of people destroying other high level players in that same matchup with the low-tier character!  That person is too busy looking for explanations as to why they failed in a way that excuses the failure.  Instead, they could be focusing on improving, or making things work, or finding new tools to win.

One piece of advice that Forward used to give people, when they asked him about SSBM, was “get better.”  And this really seems like an asshole thing to say--and it kind of is--but at the same time, it’s indicative of a certain mindset.  Which is, “don’t wait for somebody to tell you that you can win, and don’t wait for them to tell you how.” Up until you’re one of the best in the world, and you need to pay a coach or analyst to study all your matches and figure out exactly what you must improve on, you can probably find something worth practicing by closing your eyes, spinning around, and throwing a rock, then chasing it.

That’s another way of saying pick anything.  If you’re not near the top, you’re not good enough to worry about being given an outline.  Pick stuff.  Get better.  You still can.  There are probably a billion ways to do it.  Take one and run with it.

Sometimes people say “you just have to believe in yourself.”  That isn’t quite true.  There is also a lot of hard work and sometimes a crapton of heartbreak too.  But it does start with a belief that there’s an answer and a solution and a way to make things work.  That you’ll be able to find that answer, that solution, if you actually look.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Curiosity vs Expectations

Something special about being human is the fact that we can kind of predict the future.  We have the mental software that lets us examine causes and effects.  When we desire a certain effect, we can try and cause it.  If you look at it backwards, that means we take actions believing that a certain future will come to pass.  We predict something will happen based on the action we’re taking. Arguably, that's the whole point of being sentient and learning; so we can predict and influence the future more accurately and precisely.

That’s pretty impressive.  Many other creatures do it too, to a lesser extent.  They can be conditioned to expect certain outcomes from experience.  If a dog pees on your carpet, you smack it on the nose.  Over time, it realizes that peeing on the carpet gets it smacked on the nose, and it doesn’t pee on the carpet.  It predicts a future it doesn’t like, and changes it by changing its action.

People are much more efficient at it though.  We can take just a few experiences, then branch those out into a variety of areas.  You touch a hot stove, you realize that touching hot stuff hurts.  You also learn that you can put your hand close to something and judge its heat from the radiation, you can guess what kinds of stuff might be hot and check first. Hence, you won't even have to burn yourself later.

You can turn one experience into a lesson which applies to a variety of situations.  That is why our mind is so powerful; it extrapolates, guesses, and predicts the future using a lot less experience than, for instance, a conditioned animal does.  One experience in one area lets you make guesses and predictions about other areas.  Less conditioning, less pain, better results.

What I’m interested in, for this post, is the state right before you have enough experience to form expectations.  It’s the state of intelligent, applied curiosity.  The state where we probably learn the most.

For instance, consider when you start playing a new video game. You are not completely ignorant.  Experience tells you that a joystick probably moves your character, and that hitting buttons will influence the game environment somehow.  Everything else is kind of up in the air.  So with that bare minimum of expectation in mind, you are ready to explore.  And it is during that state of exploration that you learn new facts most quickly and most readily.  This state doesn’t really have any win-conditions to it.  The only win-condition is “acquire more knowledge,” and that is done just by acting and observing the outcome.  You can’t really lose.  Your only objective is to find the answer to “what if” questions.

You can’t go in completely ignorant.  That’s what very little kids do, that’s what many animals do.  You don’t start playing a new fighting game by chewing on the controller.  You understand that the controller causes you to manipulate data which alters the display.  You recognize what you can manipulate and what you can’t.  You start to see how your actions affect the future.  You acquire experience.

This is the point where we start developing expectations.  And this is where we often stop learning, too.  Or we learn less quickly.  We attach ourselves to certain outcomes and try to force them to happen, over and over again.  We expect that things will turn out a certain way, and try to manipulate the environment into doing what we want.  When things don’t go our way, we enter a mental state of conflict.  We focus more on the outcome we wanted, rather than on what actually happened based on what we did.

So now it’s possible to fail.  Failure is bad.  You want to stay away from the failure scenario, mentally and physically. This causes you to push away the inputs and data that led to the undesired outcome. You would think it would be different, that, like touching a hot stove, we'd go "oh that didn't work I won't do that." But that's not how it works.

Information that doesn’t serve us tends to be discarded.  If we don’t want the information, we generally don’t keep it.  That means that if you don’t get a result you want, you don’t store the input that led to it.  Trying to win too hard keeps you from learning from failures, because failures are undesired and discarded. Your focus matters, and focusing too much on the outcome can keep you from remembering what caused the outcome in the first place.

Compare that to somebody who genuinely just wants to know.  Who stores as much information about a situation as they can, so they know specifically “what happens in this case?”  More interested in learning transforms into absorbing more details, causing more learning.  Hence, more improvement.

I repeat this subject a lot on this blog.  The focus is on learning, and curiosity, and absorbing as much of the gamespace as you can.  Every time you shift your focus over to winning, you decrease your adaptability.  That’s energy you could have spent absorbing another detail or making another connection. That is focus you could have used to get better, and win more as life goes on.

The thing is, when you know what actions will lead to what outcomes--done by observing and learning--then winning suddenly becomes a lot easier.  It becomes obvious.  Especially when you decrease pressure on yourself by not describing it as “winning” or “losing,” but simply cause and effect. You learn almost instantly, and improve just as quickly.

That’s all.  Kind of rambly today.  Thanks for reading.