Year 3 and Blogging

My third year of Cornell starts in a just few days!

I’ll try to blog a bit more than before, but that’s not a guarantee. Although, between this and my other blog, I’ve written more in the last 2 months (52 posts) than in the previous 1.5 years combined (41 posts). With luck, that momentum will remain strong and I might catch up in the next few months to my 2010 posting frequency (235 posts in 1 year).

A glimpse at some of the classes I’ll be taking:

  • German 2000 – Intercultural Context: Continuation of my German learning experience. Guten Tag!
  • Math 4330 – Honors Linear Algebra: According to my peers, this is supposed to be a difficult class. I think I’m prepared.
  • Math 4530 – Intro to Topology: This will be interesting. I have always wanted to learn topology. It just seems like one of the strangest things math has created.
  • Math 4810 – Mathematical Logic: Given all the logic posts I’ve written, I think it will be worthwhile to take a class in formal logic. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, here I come!
  • ???: I haven’t decided on a fifth class yet. I was originally planning to take Math 6170 – Dynamical Systems, but it turns out to be the same time as Intro to Topology, and I don’t happen to have one of those magical time turners. With Cornell’s add/drop system, I can wait a while to finalize this. If any Cornellian happens to be reading this and wishes to suggest a good class in any subject, please let me know!

Well, my next post will probably come from Ithaca. Stay tuned!

Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality?

Or are they on a collision course?

Google Glass

The Role-Creating World

One of the most popular and successful genres of gaming is the role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG, the player is a character in a usually fantasy world, and is able to develop skills and abilities within that world to progress as a character. In the virtual world, one could grow more powerful or more wise, and take on more difficult obstacles.

Traditionally, these role-playing games—and in fact, all commercial video games—were played as an escape from reality. One could escape the loud, busy, modern world and live instead in a quiet, simple, and perhaps peaceful world.

WoW Screenshot 4
Screenshot from the game World of Warcraft.

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roes and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

From a gamer interviewee, in the same report about the RPG known as Maple Story:

“It’s a game where you can make people grow and develop within a certain line of work.  …you get a feeling that you are improving.”

The anonymity of online gaming meant that players could ignore social and economic barriers in real life, and feel accomplished by themselves.

The Facebook Conundrum

The face of gaming was forever changed by Facebook. Instead of playing with anonymous players from all around the country, and even all around the world, players of Facebook games play with their real-life friends.

Screenshot from Farmville. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Moreover, many Facebook games have microtransactions, where players can pay real money to gaming companies in exchange for virtual goods or virtual currencies. In “older” style RPG’s, on the other hand, all currencies are in-game only and there is no legal exchange between virtual money and real money.

These are two big factors:

  • The veil of anonymity has lifted; and,
  • Real money is now able to affect your character’s position in the virtual world.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed: into socioeconomic stratification in the virtual world, which was supposed to be the one place where players could escape from real world problems.

That is, in classic RPG’s, more successful players could attribute their victories to skill, knowledge, and effort. But in microtransaction-based games, the more successful players could be attributed to just being wealthier in the real world.

Diablo 3 and Marxism

Even in these microtransaction-based games on Facebook, the microtransactions can be thought of in terms of a state-controlled economy. Almost always, the company itself determines the prices of all virtual goods or currencies, and the company itself is the seller of goods. Zynga and Nexon are two examples of this.

Activision Blizzard took the idea of microtransactions one step further, and created a capitalist economy, where the players themselves sell goods to each other, while the company obtains a 15% tax on each virtual good sold.

Screenshot of the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3. The $250 buyout is the max limit.

In the classic microtransaction models where every player who buys a particular item pays the same amount, no player feels ripped off or feels that the system is unfair.

But in the Real Money Auction House model, one player might buy a near identical good for half the price that another player paid, perhaps because the first player had carefully studied the market and compared options more carefully. The second player ends up feeling ripped off.

In this free market virtual economy, the stratification arising from unregulated capitalism has taken effect. Again, one doesn’t need to read Karl Marx to see what is going on in this virtual economy. The rich are getting richer by buying goods cheap and then reselling them for higher values, while the poor find it very difficult to start off. The poor have essentially turned into a working class. The Diablo 3 economy is very much akin to that of Industrial Revolution Britain.

The Future of the Virtual World

The virtual world began as an escape from reality, then transformed into a mirror of current reality, and then mutated again to a history of human reality.

If it continues down this path, then the virtual world of the future is not going to be the virtual world we saw in our dreams.

What we imagined virtual reality to be.

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

Is the Afterlife the Only Motivation?

I was recently debating against someone the concept of motivation. What makes us live our lives the way we do? Why do we follow laws and social norms? Why fundamentally do we buy things and not steal?

My side of the debate was that there are many sociological factors at play. I won’t go into detail, because sociology isn’t the topic of this post. The topic is the concept of the Afterlife, a life that supposedly happens after our own.

The person against whom I was arguing claimed that all motivation to live decently, or even to live at all, comes from the rewards in the Afterlife. He pretty much stated that the only point in life is to prepare for an Afterlife.

This may indeed be true for religious people, I conceded. But then I asked him, What about atheists? If the Afterlife is the only motivation, then why don’t atheists just all commit suicide because there is no point in life?

My opponent replied that he himself is an atheist, but he does believe in an Afterlife. Just not a religious version.

So my question back to him was: What about atheists who don’t believe in an Afterlife? What motivates these kinds of people? What keeps them going?

His conclusion completely shocked me: if it were the case that there is no Afterlife, then he would commit suicide.

The reason this debate got interesting is that I myself am an atheist who doesn’t believe in any afterlife. I believe that the human conscience is a byproduct of chemical processes occurring at rapid rates in the brain. Of course, science does not yet fully understand the brain. But still, there is no evidence to support that there is something special about conscience that cannot be explained by natural processes.

In this view, that conscience is the result of emergent properties from chemistry, once a person’s brain activity ceases, their conscience goes away. It doesn’t have to go somewhere else.

An analogy is that if you put out a fire, it’s gone forever. Relighting it doesn’t create the “same” fire as you had before. Once the fire is put out, it exists only in the past. Sure, it may have left behind evidence that it was there, just as humans leave behind legacies.

Looking at biology, we see no solid afterlife for there to be an Afterlife. The reason so many people believe in one, I’d argue, is due to societal reasons.

Historically, the belief in the afterlife has largely been to give someone a reason for obeying someone else, or for behaving themselves in certain ways, in order that a society can function.

In ancient societies, how do you get people to obey a ruler? You create a religion that makes the ruler’s power come from a higher power, so that nobody may question him.

How do you get the slacker to work, the thief to lead a noble life? Tell him that if he performs well this life, he will be rewarded the next, and that if he does wrong this life, he will suffer eternal torment. Historically, this is how human civilization came to be.

So what then?

Since ancient times, humans have had a dependency on religion. NewScientist had a pretty good article a while ago explaining how civilization pretty much depended on the unifying power of religion to start off.

Nearly all major religions say there is an afterlife, and most have some saying about what it is or how to live this life to better live in the next. The Ancient Egyptians built enormous tombs for their rulers so that they would be better off in their next life.

However, my question to this is: Is the afterlife necessary once a civilization is sufficiently developed?

That is, if we suppose we don’t annihilate ourselves on this planet, and when eventually we humans will be a space-faring species capable of interstellar and maybe intergalactic travel, are we still going to rely on religion? Or is there some point where we will get past it as a species?

Will we ever be able to unify for some other purpose than believing ancient myths? I think so. I predict that when humanity begins to colonize other worlds, religion shall be only a dusty exoskeleton shedded off by knowledge. It shall be but a legend of the past.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The wait is almost over. Check out NASA’s official page on the Curiosity rover.

The rover is currently closing in on Mars, with a few hours before landing. The image below links to NASA’s “Where is Curiosity” page with real-time locations.

The landing itself will be very intricate. Many different processes will have to work perfectly for a successful landing. Let’s hope all goes well.

Edit: It successfully landed! Great job NASA! Here is the first picture, in which Curiosity overlooks its own shadow:

What If? (From the Creator of xkcd)

I’ve recently stumbled upon Randall Munroe’s latest site, What If? [link]

It attempts to scientifically answer some of the craziest questions out there. The very first, for instance, is,

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

Randall Munroe

The results are pretty explosive. The near-light-speed baseball pitch is only the first example. The questions answered so far include:

  • What would be the chance of guessing every question on the SAT correctly?
  • How much power can Yoda generate?
  • What would a mole of moles be like?
  • How long would humanity last in a robot apocalypse?

There are some great answers so far. I will definitely be keeping this on my bookmarks.