Process Update #1: Civ VI, Lance Armstrong and Speedrunning

Meh! I’ve done it again. I've gotten so caught up in trying to produce a refined, finished product, that I haven't posted anything in nearly two weeks. So, as a reminder to myself that this blog is about process and not result, I have decided to write about the things that I am working on writing about, as unnecessarily meta as it might seem.

Civilization VI Epic Discussion

For a really long time now, I've thought that the Civilization video game series makes a really good learning and teaching tool for students to learn about how societies work. It's a really good simulation, based on very sound first principles, that leads to a lot of realistic emergent gameplay.

This is a series that I have been working on for – well, a very long time now. I've tried many different ways, and failed many different times, to find a format and a structure for discussing Civilization that is both clear and comprehensive. After many different attempts at trying to create this series, I think I've finally figured out how to do it.

There is so much to discuss here that I am going to need quite a long time to finish it all, but here's a list of some of the themes that I'm working on:

  • model thinking and the interaction of complex systems
  • emergent behaviour versus programmed behaviour
  • strategic thinking and decision making in Civ
  • tactical thinking, political pragmatism and cost-benefit analysis
  • the origins and limits of civilization
  • why is the monument one of the first builds?
  • the interchangeability of religion
  • what assumptions does the Civ game make?
  • war: extension of politics by other means
  • peace: what is it good for?
  • great people: accelerating or deflecting the course of history?
  • the value of culture and the difficulty of modelling culture
  • victory conditions, or: what is the role of the state?
  • diplomacy, the nation-state model and the balance of power
  • historical thinking and parallel universes

How Lance Armstrong Changed Cycling

This Deadspin article has been making the rounds recently. It's easily the best summary of what Lance Armstrong did during his time as a professional cyclist, and comes from the deepest well of knowledge about the sport of cycling out of all the coverage that I've seen so far. I highly recommend it.

One argument in the Deadspin article stuck out to me: the reason that the FBI and USADA were eventually able to gather all this evidence against Armstrong may very well be precisely that he intimidated everybody into submission for so long. That worked against him when Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, two of his former teammates with the least personal loyalty to Armstrong and the most to gain by exposing him, turned against him and turned the FBI's attention onto Armstrong.

From that point, Armstrong's former teammates – most of whom he had alienated personally, if not professionally – testified one by one by one. With the force of the federal government to mitigate their fear of Armstrong, there was less and less incentive to keep the omertà, the code of silence in professional cycling. When even George Hincapie, possibly the only Armstrong teammate to feel any genuine fraternal affection for him, testified – it was over. It was Armstrong's "et tu, Brute?" moment.

To understand how this dynamic built up in the first place, it's instructive to look at the very structure of professional cycling, the sport's financial incentives, the way a cycling race plays out on the road, the professional race calendar, cycling's doping history, and Armstrong's own particular personality. All of these separate factors played into the peculiar Greek tragedy that is Armstrong's transcendent rise and devastating fall.

The Incremental Nature of Speedrunning

In my last post about speedrunning, I was struggling to fit speedrunning into the framework of sport. Since then I've realised that there may be a better lens through which to view speedrunning: science.

Sure, speedrunners like to go fast. But a big part of what drives speedrunners is understanding the structure and logic of the virtual world they find themselves in, and looking for ways to use that logic to their advantage. There's an emphasis on the replicability of glitches, and the refinement of particular routes to their theoretical maximum potential. When the potential of a speedrun route is exhausted, the hunt begins anew for a new glitch, a new trick, a new route that offers more possibilities, which is a process that mimics Karl Popper's paradigm shifting model of science.

I've still got more ideas, but they'll have to wait. These three topics alone will take a while to write about. I'm hoping that these process posts will help to help me on track, by providing an outlet for me to express some intermediate ideas and arguments.

That's all for today!

Learning To Read Science

I’ve been trying, with mixed success, to reduce the amount of plastic waste I generate. Spending months in Freiburg will do that to you.

So imagine my joy at seeing this headline in the Guardian this week:

Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles (The Guardian, 16 Apr 2018)

Woohoo! I no longer need to feel guilty about all the single-use packaging my groceries are in!

Any images of plastic melting into water and carbon dioxide were swiftly dispelled, however, when I read the article itself:

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug. The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles…

So the enzyme that eats plastic bottles already existed, and was discovered in 2016. What the scientists accidentally did is they accidentally made it better at eating plastic bottles.

How much better is the new mutant enzyme at breaking down PET (polyethylene terephthalate)?

It is a modest improvement – 20% better – but that is not the point,” said McGeehan. “It’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimised.

See, here’s the problem I have. The developments in the article are genuinely exciting, not for their immediate uses but because of what they suggest is possible — that we may eventually find and/or develop enzymes that can break down all plastics (not just PET) in a matter of, say, hours or days — as opposed to the centuries plastics currently take to degrade.

But none of that possibility is conveyed in a sensationalist headline that focuses on the idea of eating plastic bottles.

In fact, the Reddit post on r/science highlighting this article got flagged for a sensationalistic headline.

 Screenshot in case the post disappears.

Screenshot in case the post disappears.

 And the mod response right at the bottom.

And the mod response right at the bottom.

Confusogenic Cancer Communications

Let’s visit another bad science headline, from October 2015.

Processed meats rank alongisde smoking as cancer causes — WHO (The Guardian, 26 Oct 2015)

You might remember this one. When the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released its report on the link between processed meats and colon cancer in Lancet Oncology, the news made headlines all over the world. The Guardian’s headline was especially egregious, for reasons I’ll point out in a second, but many major news outlets responded with similar headlines:

Meat Is Linked To Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds (New York Times)

Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organization declares (Washington Post)

Processed meats do cause cancer — WHO (BBC News)

All of these headlines say that eating meat causes (or “is linked to”) cancer, but the Guardian’s headline says one thing that the other headlines do not: that processed meat is in some way as bad at causing you cancer as smoking.

Let’s take a look at the openings of each of these articles, too. The Guardian:

Bacon, ham and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, the World Health Organisation has said, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.

The New York Times:

An international panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization concluded Monday that eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well. But the increase in risk is so slight that experts said most people should not be overly worried about it.

The Washington Post:

A research division of the World Health Organization announced Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer and that red meat probably does, too.

The BBC:

Processed meats - such as bacon, sausages and ham - do cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Its report said 50g of processed meat a day - less than two slices of bacon - increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. Meanwhile, it said red meats were “probably carcinogenic” but there was limited evidence.

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the New York Times, Washington Post and the BBC talk specifically about the findings in the Lancet Oncology) paper itself, which is a meta-analysis of existing studies and pretty readable even for someone without any college-level medical or biology knowledge:

A meta-analysis of colorectal cancer in ten cohort studies reported a statistically significant dose–response relationship, with a 17% increased risk (95% CI 1·05–1·31) per 100 g per day of red meat and an 18% increase (95% CI 1·10–1·28) per 50 g per day of processed meat.

The Guardian, instead, opted to talk about the WHO’s categorisation of processed meat as a class 1 carcinogen:

Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer.

Here’s the problem: the IARC’s classification of carcinogens does not classify them by degree of risk of carcinogenicity, but rather by the strength of the evidence that they are carcinogenic. Atlantic writer Ed Yong put it most elegantly in his article, Why is the World Health Organization So Bad At Communicating Cancer Risk?:

[T]hese classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous.

Scientific Literacy, Or Lack Thereof

While it’s true that the WHO’s communications on the carcinogenicity of processed meat were pretty dang bad, I also think the overall level of scientific literacy among non-scientists is pretty poor.

This comment isn’t about how much science non-scientists know — it’s about whether non-scientists know how to read science at all. And to be fair, this isn’t something I knew to seek out for myself either — it was something that I accidentally thrust on myself.

My final semester at NYU, I took a class called Learning To Speak: First and Second Language Acquisition Of Sound. I asked the professor beforehand what the class was like, and she said it was “lots of reading”.

Easy peasy, I thought. I’m a Spanish major, I can do lots of reading. In my imagination there was some kind of textbook of language acquisition, and we’d read a chapter or two every week.

Of course that’s not what happened. Every week, we read two to three papers on how people learn to speak and understand spoken language, and then we critiqued them. We discussed how well or how poorly the experiments were designed, how the subject pools may have affected the outcome, alternative interpretations of the results, and so on. (While discussing one paper with a particularly baffling choice of subjects, our professor said, “You’re all young and like, ‘for the science!’ but maybe he had a publishing deadline and decided the the data was good enough.”)

Honestly, I don’t remember half of the conclusions from the papers we read, but what I took away from the class was much more valuable. I learnt how to read a scientific paper, how to look for and poke at chinks in the armour, the linguistic and statistical sleights of hand that researchers might use to shore up data that is in reality not very conclusive. It was the first time I’d been forced to pull back the curtain and actually look at how scientific knowledge is created — and therefore how solid or shaky that knowledge might be.

This is very different from how science tends to be taught up to high school. At that level, education focuses not on the experiment but on the result. High school science is about showing a grasp of principles that are already well-established, without necessarily exploring how those principles got established in the first place.

It’s no surprise, then, that when we’re watching science being written, we have no idea what to do with it. It’s not that we don’t want to see the sausage being made, necessarily — we’re not even taught what that looks like. Right through high school we’re only shown complete sausages, and given the vague impression that they come straight from the animal like this. (Okay, that metaphor died fast.)

Except maybe don’t eat sausages, because, you know, they raise your risk of colorectal cancer from 4.3% to just over 5%.

Alternatives to the Current Model of Science Education

There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here — we don’t have to overhaul pre-university science education as it is, but we probably should change the experimental part of it.

Imagine a virtual reality sandbox with its own rules of physics. Imagine the challenge of using whatever you find in this virtual reality to try and determine acceleration due to gravity, or the refraction index of a particular gemstone, or the chemical composition of an unknown liquid. You could generate a complex system with some element of randomness for teaching students about designing and conducting experiments on a population, and the different ways of massaging data to fit a desired result. There’s so much more we could do in this arena.

Right now, science journalists have the job of communicating to us what these science papers say. They don’t always do a very good job of it, and neither do the scientists.

Let’s learn to meet them halfway.

Entertainment On Steroids

I got back into the gym for the first time in a long time this week. I enjoy powerlifting, so even though I’m not very good at it (yet) I’m already looking forward to my next gym session. In the meantime, I’ve been watching replays of the Olympic weightlifting events at London 2012 to sate my appetite for the barbell.

Olympic weightlifting is one of those sports that exists under the persistent dark cloud of doping, for the simple reason that — like athletics and cycling — pharmaceutical assistance provides such a clear and direct advantage. Doping won’t help you dribble like Cristiano Ronaldo, or hit a tennis ball like Roger Federer, but a bigger cardiovascular engine will always help you sprint faster and last longer on two feet or two wheels, and stronger muscles will always help you lift heavier.

As sports fans, it’s easy to believe that Ronaldo’s genius on the pitch is “real” and hard to think of how it could possibly be artificially supplemented by doping, while it’s easy to imagine steroids being behind Ilya Ilyin’s élan on the London 2012 platform, and therefore hard to believe it’s “real” (which, as we now know, it wasn’t).

Ilya Ilyin stood on the highest step of the podium at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in the men’s 94kg category, a category that piqued my interest because in 2016, six of the top seven finishers at the London 2012 Games were retroactively disqualified for doping after retests of samples turned out to be positive. Saied Mohammadpour of Iran, who finished fifth on the day, ended up being awarded the gold medal; Tomasz Zielinski of Poland, in ninth place, received the bronze — despite having been disqualified from Rio 2016 for testing positive for spironolactone.

What Counts As Doping?

I started taking an interest in road cycling in 2008, reading cycling biographies and learning about the sport. Obviously, in 2008, the biggest legend in the sport was Lance Armstrong. That’s where I started: I read about Armstrong, about his rivalry with Jan Ullrich, about how his manager Johan Bruyneel and he constructed a team and a racing schedule oriented exclusively towards winning the Tour de France. I found videos of some of Armstrong’s greatest moments: the “Look” he gave Jan Ullrich on L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001, cutting across the grass to avoid Joseba Beloki’s crash in 2003, crashing himself and then his furious pedalling to win the stage at Luz-Ardiden, also in 2003.

I read about how the 1999 Tour was supposed to be a “Tour of renewal” after the Festina Affair in 1998, when Festina’s soigneur Willy Voet was caught with EPO and other doping paraphernalia while crossing the Belgian-French border, and how it led to the Festina team being kicked out of the 1998 Tour and the discovery that Christophe Bassons was a squeaky clean rider on a dirty team. I read about how Armstrong confronted Bassons at the 1999 Tour and how Bassons quit professional cycling shortly after.

When Jonathan Vaughters formed Team Slipstream (now Team EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale), with the specific goal of competing cleanly and transparently at the highest levels, I thought it was funny that this objective even needed to be expressly stated. I read David Walsh’s From Lance to Landis, and Floyd Landis’s Positively False, and David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark, and Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race. In the comments section of Velonews, I saw how other cycling fans regarded certain Tour riders and performances with suspicion, and I started to understand that to be a cycling fan meant understanding doping.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), funnily enough, doesn’t seem to have a simple layman’s definition of doping. In the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA says:

Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport.” It is the essence of Olympism, the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents. It is how we play true… Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.

In effect, WADA’s definition defines doping by what it isn’t: it isn’t sporting, and it isn’t sport. So, if we want to think about what counts as doping, we first have to address the question of what sport is for.

What Is the Point of Sport?

I like Wikipedia’s definition of sport:

Sport (BrE) / sports (AmE) includes all forms of competitive physical activity or games which, through casual or organised participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants, and in some cases, entertainment for spectators.

This isn’t the only definition of sport, and Wikipedia’s page on sport gives as good an overview as any of the history and ideals of sport. I won’t go into detail here; the definition above will do for our discussion.

The idea that doping is contrary to the spirit of sport, I think, is rooted in two different convictions that need to be addressed separately:

  1. Sport is about achieving maximum performance within the constraints of an athlete’s natural abilities; doping introduces an advantage external to an athlete’s natural capabilities.
  2. Sport is about seeing which competitor can come out top on an even playing field, and doping gives competitors an unfair advantage over non-doping competitors.

These are separate considerations: #1 has to do with why testosterone supplementation is prohibited while protein supplementation is commonplace. It’s a question that I personally find very interesting, but I’m not going to explore it here. In this post, I want to discuss #2, specifically this scenario:

If Everyone Is Doping, Does Doping Still Confer an Unfair Advantage?

When Lance Armstrong went on Oprah in 2013 to discuss his doping as a professional cyclist, he was derided for having looked up the definition of “cheat” to figure out if he was cheating:

Oprah Winfrey: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?
Lance Armstrong: At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.

Well, it’s true that in his case, doping was levelling the playing field, and not conferring an unfair advantage. If you know that everyone is doping (and it’s worth noting that even in the dirtiest days of cycling, we know that at least one rider was absolutely clean: Christophe Bassons), then obviously the answer is no. There is no unfair advantage. Sure, there are points we can argue (is everyone using comparable doping protocols? Does everyone have access to the same doping resources?) but in a purely theoretical situation where every one has equal access to doping and the same willingness to dope, doping would not confer an unfair advantage. (There's this whole argument we could make about super-responders, but I won't go there today.)

So why do fans feel affronted by doping revelations? (I’m leaving out non-doping competitors from this discussion — it’s obvious why they’re angry.)

Breaking the Spell

As a cycling fan, I remember feeling disillusioned about the sport as I learnt about widespread EPO usage and blood doping within the professional peloton. I thought about the Armstrong performances I’d seen, and felt taken for a chump. It didn’t matter to me that Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Joseba Beloki and the rest of the peloton might also have been doping. It didn’t matter that the outcome might have been exactly the same had nobody been doping. What mattered was that I’d thought I’d been watching one thing (cycling on paniagua, or “bread and water”), when in fact I had been watching quite another.

When I watched the replay of the men’s 94 kg Olympic weightlifting at the 2012 London Olympic Games, I did so with the full knowledge that the results had been proved to be farcical. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I’d feel that the event was a sham because the men were lifting doped, that what I’d be seeing was in some way less real, less noteworthy, less valid.

So I was surprised to find that I was still intensely invested in the lifters, that I still rooted for them to make each lift, that I still felt each success and each failure as keenly as at any other sporting event I’d watched.

This got me wondering what exactly it was about this event that I still enjoyed, while watching replays of Armstrong wins in 2008 was a source of disillusion. If anything, the knowledge that the weightlifters had doped freed me to enjoy whatever athleticism was on display, instead of wondering whether that athleticism was “real” or not.

It occurs to me that this is not unlike the contract between actors, filmmakers, directors, documentarians, etc. and their audiences.

In Exposed by the Mask, the famed theatre director Sir Peter Hall explains why audiences will sit and watch something totally made-up:

All the words in the theatre that define truth are of course expressing a central paradox: we are watching something that is not true at all, and we know it. The actor is always pretending. The stage is not reality, but a metaphor and the words are predetermined by the playwright. But an audience’s praise is for the intensity of the deception. If it is acute enough, their imaginations will be fulfilled and they will have a satisfying evening. This is a sensitive and intricate contract and when it is broken there is acute disappointment, even anger. A bad film irritates or provokes the giggles. A bad performance with live actors appalls and embarrasses. An audience feels foolish if the performance is not sensible and they cannot believe in it.

Ages ago in college, I wrote a little essay that I titled The Unbelievable Truth, in which I extended this idea to explore how documentaries convince their audiences to believe extraordinary stories. In it, I wrote that:

If the contract of most drama requires a rigid and unnatural form, then the contract of the documentary requires veracity. The audience agrees to be engaged in the material on the condition that the events portrayed did happen, that everything that happens in front of the camera has some basis in reality — not simply an emotional or spiritual reality, but a factual reality that can be independently verified. That is a documentary’s mask, perhaps the most rigid and unbending mask of all — the material must be rooted not only in truth, but in fact.

This is part of the appeal of the Olympics: we watch Olympic events like athletics, artistic gymnastics and weightlifting because we want to see superhuman feats of speed, strength and control — but only if these superhuman feats are actually in some sense “human”, because that’s exactly what makes them extraordinary.

We don’t want to watch these events and think, “I can’t believe humans can do that!” only to discover later that — of course — humans can’t actually do that without some kind of pharmaceutical assistance.

When that happens, we feel foolish, disappointed and angry not because of the doping, not because of the cheating even, but because of the deception. We feel that someone went out there with the intention of deceiving us. That’s what inspires the disillusionment.

If you watch an athletic event in which you know that the majority of the contending competitors have doped and have been punished, then you are watching the same sport as the one they’re performing, and the element of deception is stripped away. At least, then, you can quiet the suspicious voice asking if you’re being duped, and instead enjoy what you’re seeing.

This is something I want to explore further: the connection between sport and theatre, and the unspoken contract that makes them possible.

One Final, Floating Thought

In Exposed by the Mask, Sir Peter Hall said something else that I often think about:

Children get very angry with any other child who will not maintain the group fantasy… anyone who breaks the spell… is ostracised.

Children often play-act and indulge their imagination, but even that free-flowing play has implicit rules that everyone is expected to follow. That makes me think of how different sporting cultures regard their respective black sheep: professional tennis, for instance, by and large shunned Maria Sharapova after her positive test for meldonium, because she had shattered the collective illusion that tennis was a clean sport.

And professional cycling’s treatment of Bassons? That’s easy. The peloton shunned Christophe Bassons because he shattered the collective illusion that everyone was doping.