Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The life of Frasier Crane

I saw it observed recently that Frasier Crane changes as a character between the end of Cheers and the beginning of Frasier. But Frasier in season one is actually pretty similar to his character on Cheers; he changes more in the second and third seasons. That's because past that point we see Frasier happy for the first time. For most of his time on Cheers he's miserable. Remember his comment to Daphne when she was lonely:

"I remember a time back in Boston, I was going through exactly what you're going through now. Just a week later I met a lovely barmaid, sophisticated if a bit loquacious. We fell madly in love and we got engaged... 'course, she left me standing at the altar. But the point is, I didn't give up. I took my poor battered heart and handed it to Lilith... who put it in her little Cuisinart and hit the purée button..."

Frasier left home at 18 for Harvard/Oxford, when Niles was 13. He never really had an adult friendship with his brother until he came back to Seattle. He never had a girlfriend and had few friends, none of which he bothered to keep up with after his return to Seattle at age 40. He never had any sort of relationship with his father either. His mother was the only good relationship he seemed to have, and while clearly loving, she wasn't exactly a warm person.

Frasier presumably spent four years in undergrad, four years in medical school, and four years in residency, making him at least 30 when he finally entered private practice in 1982. He also has a PhD, so research time may have extended that by a bit. When he was done, he decided to stay in the same town his school was in rather than go home. That alone says something.

We never got any hint he had any sort of significant social life or relationships during that twelve year period, beyond a short-lived and ill-considered marriage. Frasier had an affair with his piano teacher just before leaving for Harvard at age 18, then said there was nobody else for six and a half years. He married Nanette during medical school, so presumably she was his next relationship at age 24 or 25. There were a fair number of women in Harvard medical school in the late seventies, but clearly he had no success connecting with them.

Aside from Nanette, and his Oxford roommate showing up in Frasier season 10, this part of Frasier's life seems to be a complete blank; he never references old friends or relationships. Frasier, to this point, is defined by his academic life and accomplishments.

He was 31 when he met Diane, not long after he finally left school. Diane crushes him, and his mother dies not long after. He stays at Cheers, because he likes having human non-academic connections, of the sort he's never had before, and of the sort he might imagine he could have with his father if they could get over their baggage. Hanging out at Cheers is really the first time Frasier hasn't been buried in psychiatry in his entire life. For a couple years the bar is, from a human standpoint, almost literally all Frasier has.

Then he finds Lilith, a woman who shared a lot of traits with his mother, but who is by most metrics an awful human being. Their marriage slowly falls apart, though it does produce Frederick, who Frasier loves dearly. We also start to see that Frasier has trouble relating to women without it becoming sexual; he tries to sleep with Rebecca, a woman with whom he shares nothing. This is a man who has had almost no good and lasting relationships in his life, of any kind, besides with the barflies at Cheers.

After his second divorce, Frasier gets away from horrible abusive women. He befriends his brother, and finds that he can enjoy elevated conversation in a non-academic setting. He rediscovers their mutual love for opera and theater and fine dining, things he at first rejects, then comes to embrace. He befriends Daphne and Roz, and finds that not all women want to hurt him, and that he can have non-sexual relationships with them. And he overcomes his baggage with his father. This is literally the first time in Frasier's life that he has anything like a normal life.

Frasier changes, because Frasier becomes himself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hysteresis voting

Our founders held this as an axiom: government should reflect the will of the people. A government which does not is a tyranny, and should be torn down and replaced. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

But our founders were also right to be concerned about the tyranny of the mob; in a direct democracy, if you can convince 50.0001% of the people to do break the system, it's broken forever. There have to be limits in place to slow things down, and ways to fix mistakes when they happen. That's why we have a representative democracy instead of a direct one. If the United States had been a direct democracy, then the 9/11 attacks might have resulted in misdirected nuclear retaliation and millions of innocent deaths. It's very possible that only our representative democracy kept that from happening.

But what if there's a terrorist attack two days before an election?

That might change the outcome, right? Perhaps Nathan Petrelli or Donald Trump wins instead of losing, and the course of the country is changed for at least the next several years. Maybe we invade Iraq again. Maybe we do something much worse, something we regret for centuries. And even as the people calm down, there's no chance for years to remove the horrible people we elected.

But if the same attack happened two days after the election? Now Nathan loses, and we go on an entirely different course for the next six years.

What's different between those scenarios? The attack happens identically. The people of the country react identically. They're still being asked the same questions on election day. The only difference is timing. Ask on the wrong day, and you set the course of the country for years to come, with no chance to undo it until the next time you ask the people what they want.

A similar thing happens in cases like Brexit. The way people vote is actually dependent on how they expect the outcome to go. Once people see the outcome of the referendum, they might change their vote (or lack of vote), but now it's too late. People are convinced their votes don't matter, so on the rare occasion they do matter, they're left wanting a second chance. The will of the people suddenly changed, but it only changed after the vote, so the government is left unable to respond to the change.

Signal processing and controls engineers, do you recognize this? It's a sampling problem! The people want the government to behave in a certain way, which changes over time. That's our setpoint we're trying to hit. The setpoint is able to change rapidly (even in response to its own sampling!) but it's only being sampled once every 2-6 years. If you tried to build an actual control system like that, you'd be fired!

Nyquist says that if you're sampling once every six years, the thing you're sampling can't change any faster than every twelve years! Does that describe the will of the people? Especially after something like 9/11? Absolutely not. To avoid getting a government stuck at the extremes, we need a higher sampling rate, to respond more quickly to the will of the people changing.

But that can't be the only change, of course. Having a government that's able to calm down with the people is good, but it also means having one able to get angry with them. Instant response to the momentary will of the people after a terrorist incident would be a disaster! Like in any engineered system, no matter how fast your sample rate is, you still have to have some filtering to slow down response to a reasonable level, or it will go unstable very quickly. The simplest way to achieve this filtering is called hysteresis.

So here's what we do: vote all the time, on everything. Polling stations are open 24/7, with the same set of proposals and candidates on them. Every month the vote totals reset, and everyone can go vote again. This has some immediate effects: any popular vote resolution can be changed at any time, and every elected official is facing a recall election, all the time. That's a recipe for chaos... but here's where the hysteresis comes in!

The catch is that you need a super-majority to affect change. Before an item is put on the ballot, you define some threshold for the change to be executed. Suppose the threshold for changing the mayor is 10%. Every month, you see how many people want a new mayor. Add up the percentage by which that position wins or loses, month by month. If that sum ever gets up to 10%, you get a new mayor.

So if there's one month that the vote is 55/45 for replacing the mayor, you do so immediately, because you got a ten percent difference. But say the outcome is 54/46; you only have eight of your ten required points. You have to wait another month, but that month you only need 51/49 to get that last two percent. This means that the more angry the people are at an elected official, the easier it is to remove them quickly.

But it also means that every month, you have some idea how much closer or further away that recall might be. If the embattled mayor's supporters happened to stay home the first month, maybe they'll come out the second month once they see he's in trouble. Perhaps that second month, the vote is 48/52, four points in favor of keeping him. Now the mayor is six points from being recalled instead of two, and his total will keep changing over succeeding months as more people show up to vote. You have continuously running polling of elected officials, giving a real-time approval rating, with actual consequences!

Now, what about the end of a term? Well, under this system, there doesn't have to be any actual end of term! Instead, you just gradually lower the percentage required to remove someone from office. We design the system with a bias towards change over long periods. The first year, our mayor has to have 10% net disapproval to be replaced. The second year, he only needs 8% net to be replaced. After five years, 50/50 is enough. After ten years, he has to maintain 55% approval all the time to avoid replacement. So if you have someone who's actually consistently popular, they can stay in office for a very long time. But it gets harder and harder every time. You get all the advantages of term limits, without the problem of throwing out perfectly good elected officials arbitrarily.

So there you have hysteresis elections. There are a lot of possible details to be worked out, of course.

  • Poorly timed disasters and demagogues getting a temporary majority don't break everything
  • A small majority of the electorate can't flip things back and forth rapidly
  • Voters get warnings about changes before they happen, so more people can get out and vote for what they want
    • Increase the value of votes and you increase turnout!
    • Regret for voters that sit out is reduced
  • It's much harder for the government to suppress voters if voting is happening all the time
  • Term limits are handled much more organically
  • Cost. Polling now costs at least 20x what it did previously.
    • Or you do mail-in ballots or something, with all the security flaws that entails?
    • Do we put less-important things on mail-in ballots, and only require in-person appearances past a certain limit?
  • Who sets what's on the ballots and what the hysteresis limits are? If they mayor can set his own removal threshold, that's a problem.
    • Are the proposals on the ballot and the thresholds also part of the same voting system?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bringing balance to the Force

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode 7.

After the destruction of his Jedi school, Luke went looking for the first Jedi temple. Why? What would he hope to find there?

About the only reference to ancient Jedi in the entire movie series so far is the prophecy about the Chosen One. We have few details about this prophecy, and it's not clear that the Jedi had any either. What does it actually mean to bring balance to the Force? To destroy the Sith? If so, does that mean Anakin was the chosen one, since he did ultimately do that? Or is perhaps Luke the chosen one, or has some added prophetic role? Is this the entirety of the prophecy, or is there more to it? George Lucas has made statements about the matter, but they're hardly canon any more.

This prophecy has had tremendous impact on the entire Skywalker line, and is clearly a tremendous motivator for people to do things they would not otherwise do. I believe Luke went looking for the first Jedi temple because he hoped to find out more about this prophecy. He found it, and his faith the accuracy of what he found may be why he was willing to stay so completely out of galactic affairs. He may have come to understand that Rey was coming. Luke may have been waiting for her all this time.

Snoke, on the other hand, may also be working the prophecy angle with Kylo Ren. Someone he called a perfect fusion of light and dark. That sounds a lot like balance in the Force. Perhaps the prophecy is multiple choice; the chosen one brings balance to the force, but which side he or she is on is yet to be determined. If the prophecy refers to Anakin's grandchild being the true Chosen One, or having some continuing role in the prophecy, and and if Rey is Luke's daughter, Rey and Ren may be competing to fulfill the same prophecies.

Which could lead to all sorts of interesting parallels, which we know the writers have tended towards in the past. Rey would be justifiably infuriated if her father left her in that desert hell with no intention to return. Rather than tell her the whole story, Luke may tell her her father was one of the Jedi, destroyed by Ren. Which is true... from a certain point of view. And while Luke may insist she should follow the prophecy and stay with him to train, she may place much greater weight on her friends' safety than on the prophecy. Ren finds her friends to draw her out. Leading to a confrontation.

"Skywalker never told you what happened to your father..."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Orlando and Self-Radicalization

I'm the kind of guy who wants solutions. And I spend a lot of time considering them. But I don't have one here.

We're seeing a new kind of terrorist. This wasn't an attack by foreign-born people who come here with a plan. By all appearances, this was an American who decided, on his own and without direction, to kill other Americans. Chattanooga, San Bernadio, Wichita, and Garland were all very comparable. Even the Paris attacks were primarily perpetrated by citizens of France and Brussels.

How do you stop an American citizen who, on his own, decides one day that God wants him to kill as many people as possible?

You can't stop the person from being here; he's a citizen with all the rights I have. Should we strip all Muslims of their civil rights? Put them in internment camps? Burn the first amendment?

You can't eliminate other grievances; many times there are none. We're dealing with people who have lived in rich countries their entire lives. They're not angry about American involvement in the middle east, or support of Israel. They want to kill Americans because they think God wants them to. We're dealing with a small fraction of Muslims, but it's still fundamentally a religious issue.

You can't stop Muslims from being exposed to radical ideas; free speech is impossible to contain even if you're trying. Do we try anyway? Pull down radical videos as soon as we find them? Have a new department of censorship? Once again burn the first amendment?

You can't disincentivize; they expect to die and go to heaven, and bring all their loved ones with them. Paradise beats any possible carrot or stick.

You can't prevent access to deadly weapons; guns are too widespread to practically eliminate, and trying would cause a civil war. If we waved a magic wand to eliminate all guns in the US, we would get less-lethal terror attacks, but I'm not sure the big-picture result would be better. You can do just as much damage with bombs, as we've seen from Christian domestic terrorists in the past.

One of the hardest security problems imaginable is an attacker who will trade his life for the target. How do you stop that when everyone is the target?

So far I have two possible solutions, and I don't like either of them.

1) Harden every target. Hire gigantic numbers of trained armed guards. I'm not sure how much that would actually help anything, but presume it does. We're talking about a million restaurants, 350,000 churches, 50,000 bars and nightclubs, 20,000 theaters, 100,000 libraries, 130,000 schools, and an uncountable number of shopping centers. Not to mention several million businesses. Call it ten million locations, each needing on average one full-time guard. If the guard makes a living wage, that's $300 billion a year just in wages, not to mention the high cost of continuing training. That would make it one of the largest areas of government expenditure. And all that assumes that the armed guards actually accomplish anything, which is far from certain.

Alternately, change our society so that a sizable fraction of the populace starts to carry a gun, all the time. Roughly a third of the US owns guns, and there are roughly 500 accidental deaths due to firearms. Supposing we triple the number of homes with guns in the US, we could reasonably expect an additional 1000 accidental deaths per year due to firearms, plus an indeterminate number of additional homicides and suicides. Supposing we just use the round 1000 additional deaths a year, to make this proposal effective we would have to prevent at least 1000 terrorist murders every year. We are nowhere near that number.

2) Prove the jihadists wrong. Self-radicalization happens when a Muslim becomes convinced they're living in the end times. But this didn't happen until recently. What has changed? The existence of ISIS, and a credible caliphate. Destroy that caliphate, prove that this is not the end of times, and self-radicalization should drop dramatically.

Obviously I'm reluctant to push this as a solution. Our invasion of Iraq was a complete disaster, as was our bombing of Libya. But those were disasters for specific reasons, chief among them that we had no plan to successfully pacify the country afterward, leading to a complete lack of order. For many Iraqis things got worse after the invasion, and that spiraled into further destabilization, leading directly to ISIS in the first place. Libya outright refused foreign intervention past the bombing, apparently preferring their hellhole to foreign soldiers. Because we acted without a full plan, things got worse.

Now consider, for those living under ISIS, is it even possible for things to get worse?

There are other concerns, of course. If we go to total war on ISIS, in the short term we make their prophecies look more accurate. (You know, before all the jihadists in Syria are dead. So the very short term.) How many new domestic terrorist events does that precipitate, vs. how many does it prevent?

What if, at the same time, we offer free travel for any would-be jihadists who wish to go fight us in Syria? These aren't exactly brilliant strategic thinkers; if we ask nicely, they might just line up politely to be incinerated...

And honestly, on some level, it just seems... right. We have the largest military the planet has ever seen. ISIS is the most evil force the world has seen in decades, and they are literally asking us to come fight them. For decades we've invaded places for business interests, or revenge, or in the name of ideologies that we don't even hold half the time. Can we use our amazing powers to do violence just because, for once, it's the right thing to do?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mystery Escape Room @ Salt Lake City: Mystery Impossible

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Mystery Escape Room in Salt Lake City.

This game is located downtown in the Rio Grande mall. This is one of the nicer malls I've seen, an open air, design with (when I went) good parking. There's plenty of food and other distractions around before and after your game. That may not seem like much, but it can be a lot of fun to have somewhere to go with your group and decompress afterwards.

One thing about Mystery Escape Room that surprised me is how often they rotate games. They run something like five rooms at a time, but they've had over a dozen rooms since opening a year ago. Some rooms are only open less than six weeks! I can't say I understand how that level of regular refurb is cost-effective, but it must be! They often run beta weeks, where you can test new rooms at half price, which is a neat concept.

I decided to do their newest and hardest room, Mystery Impossible. Just out of beta, less than a dozen groups had run the room, and nobody had escaped. Fine, I said. I'd done eight other rooms, escaped from seven, and escaped two alone. They promised a free game to any group that escaped, and I was sure looking forward to that second game.

I thought I was good at these things...
Mystery Impossible is well named. When they say hard, they mean it. I ran this room with five other people, one of which had done even more rooms than I had. And we still only made it through half the room before time ran out. We didn't even spend much time stuck on things, either, at least not by my usual standards!

The game masters said one previous group had gotten 70%, but that even knowing the solutions to everything, it still takes 35 minutes to execute it all. That's 25 minutes to solve all the puzzles, when there are probably twice as many as any other room I've seen, and all of them are twice as time-consuming, even once you figure out how to solve them!

I'm told there are groups that travel the country doing escape rooms. Maybe they could pull off a room like this. But I feel comfortable saying that mere mortals are never going to get out of this room. Unless you're a professional-level escaper, or just want to see a cool room and don't care about getting out, I'd recommend trying one of their easier rooms.

The difficulty level was frustrating. But I really can't complain about that, because they do label it and give the escape statistics. I knew what I was getting into, and now I have a 7/9 record. I think we could have done better if we'd been well organized. Perhaps if we'd had a leader, or something, we could have knocked a few minutes off. But I still don't think we'd have gotten out, no matter how efficient we were. We just weren't that caliber of players.

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything. Shoot, I don't even know the solutions to most of this room! But I will tell you some details that are obvious to you as soon as the room starts. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

The plot of this game requires you to break into a bank vault. This room has some of the best production values I've seen; it feels exactly right for what they're going for. Unlike any other room I've seen, they actually give you a bag of tools to start with, which alone is perfect for this story. Some of the ideas involved are sheer brilliance. You're given an instamatic camera, lamination film, paper, and an ink pad. With this, you have to create a fake ID, in the room. Pretty sharp.

Another detail is that, like any bank, there's an alarm that can go off and summon the police. Set it off, and you have limited time to figure out how to disarm it. Don't disarm it in time? Game over, no matter how much time is left on the master clock. Great touch.

Now, the puzzles. Some puzzles just have to be explained by the game master; I have trouble imagining anyone would think to do them properly otherwise. There are some math puzzles the likes of which I've never seen, and I've seen a lot of math puzzles. There are some that, even if you've seen them and know how to do them, take some significant time to execute. And this is the first room where I've seen a really time-consuming red herring, at least one the game master doesn't tell you about. (Believe me, I asked.)

This room is extremely, extremely hard. I don't think I could escape now on a second try, even with the head start I have! But ignoring that, it's a fantastically well-done room, and a lot of fun.

Rating: 10/10 (if you don't mind losing)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Escape the Room Boston: The Dig

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Escape the Room Boston.

First, finding this place was a nightmare, as was finding parking. Downtown locations are always a bit of a pain, but this was worse than most. I've heard many bad things about Boston traffic flow, and now I think they're all true! I'd highly recommend parking elsewhere and taking an Uber to the location. The building wasn't well marked when I was there in Fall '15, either. Be sure you read their directions on how to get in.

I was originally expecting to do this room with just myself an engineer coworker. Then eight local music students showed up! It certainly made for an interesting mix, but everything worked really well. We made it out with about ten minutes left on the clock. The staff at this location were perhaps less enthusiastic than some I've seen, but I had no complaints, by any means.

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything, but it will tell you some vague details that aren't obvious when you first walk in. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

This game has the plot of an archaeological dig, but you start in a church setting. It's pretty obvious from the start that there's more to the room than you see, but the depths may surprise you. The lights are dim, and the room has several battery-operated candles in it. This is an excellent touch, really adds to the feel of the place; you have to actually pick up the candles and hold them to things to be able to see them!

As I write this I have done nine rooms with six companies across the country. Almost everything in this room is unique in my experience; nothing about it feels overdone or repetitive. The production quality is as good as any room I've seen, and the attention to detail is excellent. Additionally, this is one of the few rooms I've seen where running it with the maximum number of people isn't likely to be a nightmare. I often feel like running with a smaller group works better, just because of space constraints, but I didn't this time.

Really, there's almost nothing I can say that isn't good. At one point we found an unlocked box, only for the game master to come into the room and tell us to ignore it until we found the key. Apparently they failed to reset the room properly! That's not fantastic, but things happen. I'm surprised I don't see incomplete resets more often, honestly, given the details involved. Other than that I have no suggestions for improvement or feedback. This is just an excellent room, and I recommend it to anyone.

Rating: 10/10

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Breakout Nashville: Kidnapped

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Breakout Nashville.

Breakout Nashville is actually in Franklin, miles away from Nashville proper. Details, details. (Also not a problem for Beat the Clock Nashville, less than two minutes away.) There's on-site parking, even if it is a little tight. The game master (Brian in my case) was a little more enthusiastic than some; most I've seen really enjoy their work, but in this case, I felt like we were dealing with someone who really loved the concept and all its variations. That really enhanced the experience.

I played Kidnapped with my wife and dad. We made it out with thirteen minutes to spare.
While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Everything I say is either something you're told before starting, or something common to many escape rooms. But if you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

From even before the room starts, you may be a little freaked out; before you go in, you're blindfolded, then led into a dark room, handcuffed, and left there! They warn you about this before booking, and a lot of people won't even consider doing a room like that. But let me emphasize, it's okay. You have one arm handcuffed to the scenery by a chain, and the other arm is free. The chain is attached to the scenery by a magnet, so you can still get out at any time just by pulling loose. You are no more "trapped" than you are in any other room.

And let me say, this is a brilliant design choice! Not even seeing the room during the intro makes this room work twice as well as it would otherwise. The blindfolds and handcuffs are really an integral part of the fun. If that part scares you, don't let it.

The plot is pretty standard: you have an hour to get away from the psycho, or you never get out. A previous victim left clues. (Don't think to hard about that part.) The game master plays the part of the kidnapper, giving occasional clues in a creepy voice. Also a great atmospheric choice. The room is very well designed, and could believably be in someone creep's basement.

Most of the elements seemed fresh and unique. Involving the staff in the games always improves the atmosphere.  I have very few suggestions for improvement. The only thing that really broke the flow was one safe that had a lock-out time on it; enter three wrong codes, and you have to wait five minutes to try again. To avoid you locking yourself out and wasting time, the game master will tell you when you have the right code before you enter it. If that wasn't necessary, it would improve the immersion.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this game at Breakout Nashville, and I look forward to my next trip!

Rating: 10/10