Technically Exists

Comic Sans is a great font

2018-04-01

Everyone loves to hate on Comic Sans. Even those who know nothing about typography will spend the time to go on long rants about how awful it is. But the truth of the matter is entirely different from what common knowledge suggests. In reality, Comic Sans is a great font.

What makes Comic Sans so great? For one thing, it’s an easily recognizable font. It was originally released as one of five fonts supplied by Windows 95. This allowed it to spread very quickly as many personal computer users employed it in their printouts. The intense hatred that many hold for it only renders it even more recognizable. For them, Comic Sans is the enemy, and an inability to identify your enemy leads to a swift defeat. Thus, the Comic Sans haters cannot help but fuel its recognizability.

Comic Sans is also often preferred by those with dyslexia. While it is not a specialized font and therefore does not perfectly fulfill this role, it does a much better job than practically any font the Comic Sans haters will hold up. Very few fonts can match the legibility and letter spacing that Comic Sans brings to the table. It does contain mirrored letters which allow specialized fonts to surpass it, but giving those up trades away consistency, which can be very distracting for other readers. Comic Sans does an excellent job of balancing other concerns with accessibility for dyslexic readers.

One common complaint against Comic Sans is that it is an informal font often used in formal contexts. As long as the uninformed make use of it in documents in which the informal tone it sets is inappropriate, its very existence is detrimental, or so the argument goes. However, this fails to take into account the concept of countersignaling. Countersignaling is when you communicate that you strongly possess a property by not making it more conspicuous. For example, those who are newly rich will likely flaunt their wealth to make it clear that they are no longer part of the middle class, but those who are already known to be rich will worry about differentiating themselves from the newly rich, and will accomplish this by not flaunting their wealth. This only works because they are not afraid of being mistaken for a member of the lower or middle classes. That’s the reason countersignaling even works: you must be so confident in the trait you are countersignaling that you are willing to avoid emphasizing it because you know others will pick up on it anyway.

In the case of Comic Sans, many formal documents are very obviously formal regardless of the font. For instance, a doctor’s diagnosis is unlikely to be mistaken for something informal, and thus it is possible to get away with countersignaling. In fact, in basically every case in which you can tell that an informal tone is inappropriate, countersignaling is a viable strategy. So if you really want to emphasize your formality in such an instance, don’t use some standard formal font. Use Comic Sans.

But if Comic Sans is such as great font, why does everyone seem to hate it? The answer to that question lies in the history of graphic design and the rise of the internet. Early personal computers dramatically reduced the cost of high quality print design, and colleges began to produce a much larger number of graphic design graduates. However, personal computers also put the power of graphic design into the hands of everyone who owned them. While most people were slower to figure out they had this power than the graphic design students were, they did eventually learn. This was only the first step in the reduction of graphic designers’ power.

The second, far more dramatic step was the growth of web design. As print design began to die off, designers had to learn to code just to retain relevance. This made them understandably bitter, and they took their anger out on those performing graphic design without a degree. And what font did these amateurs with personal computers happen to be using? That’s right: Comic Sans. This made the font an obvious means of defining an ingroup and an outgroup. If you liked Comic Sans and used it a lot, you were a useless pretender who lacked even the most basic design knowledge. But if you hated Comic Sans, then you were a sensible designer who understood how things actually worked. Thus, hating Comic Sans was associated with understanding graphic design, and anyone who wanted to not look like an idiot learned to avoid it.

Well, I say enough is enough. It’s time to take Comic Sans back from the elitist graphic designers who use it as a symbol of their superiority. If you have a website, switch it over to Comic Sans. If you design documents, start writing them in Comic Sans. In every situation in which you get to choose the font, choose Comic Sans. Together we can retake this wonderful font from those who have abused it for so long!

How to win The Game

2018-03-14

For anyone who has no idea what the title is referring to, The Game is a mental game with three simple rules.

  1. You are playing The Game.
  2. Every time you think about The Game, you lose.
  3. Loss of The Game must be announced.

These rules lead to a meme that propagates itself without generally providing value to the minds it inhabits. Everyone is either not thinking about The Game, in which case it has no effect on them, or thinking about The Game, in which case they are losing it. However, it is possible for some people to get utility out of this.

By spreading this meme to other minds, those that enjoy watching others lose can benefit from what is otherwise a detrimental meme. However, this is a negative-sum game, so it is still harmful to the group as a whole. This means that while it is possible for a few trolls to benefit, it would still be best if The Game didn’t exist. Unfortunately, it is intentionally designed such that it cannot be ended. Winning is simply impossible.

All that means is we need to get a little creative. If something you want to accomplish is impossible, your next goal should be to try to merely approximate that thing. For example, literally defying gravity is, to the best of our knowledge, impossible. There is no way to just ignore it. However, this does not prevent airplanes and rockets from working. While they do not literally defy gravity, they do a good job of approximating what defying gravity would look like. Likewise, we want to approximate how winning The Game would appear.

In order to do so, we first need to establish what that approximation is like. Our goal is to end a negative-sum game. Thus, an important property we’re looking for is that The Game no longer reduces total utility. If we can accomplish this, then we will have approximated winning The Game well enough for our purposes. The problem is that we cannot just modify The Game to have the desired properties. This means our only option is to create something new. If we want to prevent total utility from being reduced, we’ll have to increase total utility, which will require the creation of a positive-sum game. Furthermore, this positive-sum game should provide utility whenever The Game reduces it so as to better approximate The Game’s nonexistence.

I now present my solution to this task: The Meta-Game.

  1. You are playing The Meta-Game.
  2. Every time you think about The Game, you win The Meta-Game.
  3. Winning The Meta-Game must be announced.

The first rule ensures that The Meta-Game applies to everyone The Game applies to. The second rule directly combats the negative-sum nature of The Game by making The Meta-Game a positive-sum game that awards players on the exact condition that causes them to lose The Game. The third rule helps The Meta-Game spread in the same way The Game spreads.

You might notice a problem here. Sure, players win The Meta-Game at the same time they lose The Game, but does the win really cancel out the loss? After all, doesn’t the utility gained or lost depend on how much you actually care about The Game vs. The Meta-Game and winning vs. losing? While this could be a problem in some cases, I think it can be reduced to a nonissue for most people. Remember that The Game is usually brought up by those who enjoy making others lose it. Most people will probably enjoy foiling the trolls’ plans quite a bit, so they should at least break even on utility, if not gain some.

Even this reasoning is not quite perfect, though, as it is actually circular. You have to defeat the troll in order to gain the utility that allows you to defeat the troll. This can be solved by having the troll be gradually defeated over multiple wins. Initially, they are only defeated a little bit thanks to the utility gained simply by winning a game. The next time The Game is lost, utility is gained both from winning a game and from knowing that the troll will be partially defeated, as they were last time. The third time, even more utility is gained thanks to the increased success at defeating the troll the previous time. This process continues indefinitely, and the utility gained from every time The Meta-Game is won will converge to the amount we previously arrived at circularly. (It is reasonable to assume convergence here since divergence would imply that winning The Meta-Game enough times would allow an arbitrarily large amount of utility to be gained upon every further win.)

If you followed all that and agreed with it, then congratulations, because you have just won The Game and therefore become invulnerable to it. Please be sure to use your newfound powers responsibly and spread The Meta-Game anywhere The Game has taken root. If you didn’t follow that or you disagree with my reasoning, I welcome you to leave a comment asking questions or arguing against this.

Arguing over definitions

2018-03-08

I recently got into an argument involving topics like whether water was wet and whether hotdogs were sandwiches. What all the topics had in common was that they were not arguments over facts but rather arguments over definitions. This means there is nothing in observable reality that can be pointed to in order to resolve them. What’s worse is that many arguments will fall into this category by default.

The problem is that until all relevant definitions are agreed upon, an argument will often not be about facts. As long as one definition isn’t agreed upon, the participants can make two different statements using the same exact words, which is terrible for communication. If “a hotdog is a sandwich” is interpreted by one person as “a hotdog is meat on bread” and by another person as “a hotdog is meat between two pieces of bread”, they may both think the other person is crazy. If they realize that the dispute is really over definitions, they may still believe that it is unreasonable to use any definition besides the one they use.

Is there a way to resolve this type of dispute? I would argue that it makes the most sense to debate how practical the definitions are. This includes how observable they are and how useful they are. For example, it’s pretty simple to observe if a hotdog has meat on bread. However, it may be a little harder to tell how many pieces of bread there are, such as when the bun is either split in two or almost split in two. These states are similar enough that observing the difference can take extra effort, penalizing definitions that distinguish between them.

However, what matters more than how difficult the required observations are is how useful those observations are. If distinguishing between one piece of bread and two pieces of bread is important, then it hardly matters if doing so takes a little more effort. However, barring something like cultural significance, this distinction does not seem useful, so the observation difficulty wins out (at least in my opinion). On the other hand, if someone attempted to define the word dignity as a category consisting of rocks, rockets, and cats, their definition would probably be judged as inferior to the standard definition. While it is easier to observe those things than it is to observe an abstract concept like dignity, the standard definition is simply much more useful and thus wins out.

The problem with this approach to resolving definition arguments is that it merely attempts to transform them into factual arguments. If the definitions relevant to determining which definition is more practical are also not agreed upon, you end up with a case of infinite recursion. At the end of the day, language is a fundamentally imprecise tool for communication. It’s very useful and works quite well, but it’s not perfect. As of now, though, it’s the best thing we’ve got.

How intelligent are we?

2018-03-02

Humans are generally thought of as the most intelligent beings to exist, as we have discovered nothing that appears to be more intelligent than us. But how intelligent are we compared to the theoretically attainable maximum? I believe that we are far less intelligent than is physically possible. This is because we possess roughly the minimum level of intelligence necessary to create a technological civilization.

To understand why this is so, we must look at how we came to have this level of intelligence in the first place. Over a period of about 50 million years, the brains of rat-like creatures evolved into the brains of chimps. This was a complex process that involved major structural changes. However, going from chimp brains to human brains only took about 5 million years and required only minor changes to brain structure, suggesting a faster but more gradual process that was unlikely to end at the exact time civilization started. So if one were to ask the question of why we stopped at our current level of intelligence, I would argue that we haven’t necessarily. Instead, we’re at this level because it allowed us to begin building civilization, a process that occurs on a much faster timescale than evolution.

The Agricultural Revolution occurred roughly 12,000 years ago. Since then, humanity has done all sorts of crazy things involved in building civilization, including at least one other major technological revolution, while evolution has only had time to make the most minor of changes. Thus, while there may still be room for evolutionary pressures to improve primate intelligence in the same way it’s been improving for the past 5 million years, the 12,000 years over which civilization has existed are simply too small for noticeable progress to occur. If a lower level of intelligence enabled the creation of civilization, then it would’ve moved too fast for us to be able to observe it in its current state with our current level of intelligence. Thus, whatever level of intelligence we observe ourselves to have from within a civilization is roughly the minimum level of intelligence capable of giving rise to that civilization.

This in turn suggests that there could be much more room for our intelligence to grow. It seems unlikely that the minimum level of intelligence that enables civilization would also be the maximum level of intelligence enabled by the laws of physics. Thus, I propose that humans are likely well below the theoretical maximum intelligence level.

Whether we are close to maximum intelligence is important for several topics. Brain-machine interfaces are much more important if there is significant room for them to augment our intelligence. Superintelligence is a greater concern the further we are from maximum intelligence. A distant maximum intelligence also leaves room for technologies like genetic engineering to possibly enhance human intelligence in the near-term. If these are all possible, then we would be wise to prepare for them ahead of time.

Singletons and universal inevitable threats

2018-02-09

One concept I find particularly fascinating is that of the singleton. As defined by Nick Bostrom, a singleton is “a world order in which there is a single decision-making agency at the highest level”. He states that such an agency would have “the ability to prevent any threats (internal or external) to its own existence and supremacy”. However, it is not at all obvious to me that this is true. To crystallize my intuition I would like to introduce my own concept: the universal inevitable threat.

An inevitable threat is defined as a threat that eliminates an agency regardless of the actions that agency takes. This leaves open the possibility of delaying the threat for a finite period of time, but beyond that, the agency may only choose how to spend the time it has prior to the threat’s realization. It can neither eliminate the threat nor hold it off indefinitely.

A universal inevitable threat is then defined as an inevitable threat that applies to all possible agencies. A notable property of such a threat is that it cannot be brought about by an agency, as this would imply that the agency had a course of action that would result in the threat not occurring and therefore that the threat was not inevitable relative to that agency. This concept is relevant because if a universal inevitable threat exists, then no agency is able to prevent all threats to itself, including a singleton. Furthermore, several plausible candidates for a universal inevitable threat can be identified.

The first possibility is simply the end of the universe. Exactly how the universe will end has yet to be determined, but most hypotheses posit scenarios that appear to be universal inevitable threats. One example is the heat death of the universe, which would result in a state of maximum entropy in which no information processing can take place. Since information processing seems to be essential for agencies to operate, this scenario would count as a universal inevitable threat.

Another potential end of the universe is the Big Rip scenario. In this case, the universe’s increasing expansion rips everything apart into elementary particles and radiation. Unless an agency can somehow develop a way to survive the infinite expansion rate that is eventually reached, all agencies are eliminated, making this a universal inevitable threat.

The Big Crunch is yet another possible end state of the universe. This possibility involves the universe collapsing into a dimensionless singularity. A related scenario is the Big Bounce, which follows the Big Crunch with another Big Bang to create a cycle. Unless some agency can survive a singularity of infinite density, both cases are universal inevitable threats.

Another category of universal inevitable threat candidates is resource depletion scenarios. Some scenarios for the end of the universe can actually be framed as falling under this category. For example, heat death can be viewed as the universe running out of negentropy. However, it is possible that some other resource is both essential for agencies to function and depleted prior to the end of the universe. The depletion of such a resource would be a universal inevitable threat.

The final category of candidates for universal inevitable threats is that of naturally occurring physics disasters. An example of this would be false vacuum decay. If the universe is currently part of a metastable vacuum, it could be disrupted, creating a bubble of lower-energy vacuum that expands at the speed of light. This could fundamentally alter the universe in such a way as to destroy any agencies in existence prior to the event. False vacuum decay and any similar physics disasters that occur naturally would likely be universal inevitable threats.

While it is not yet possible to confirm the existence of a universal inevitable threat, there does seem to be a significant probability of one existing. In particular, the end of the universe is very likely to be one. If one exists, it would prove that no agency is able to prevent all threats to itself, and thus that singletons do not possess this power, as seems probable to me.