War Games

So, what haven’t I done a post on in a while. Hmm…

Film reviewing?

WarGames was always going to struggle to age gracefully; even in 1983 setting one’s plot against the backdrop of the Cold War was something of an old idea, and the fear of the unofficial conflict degenerating into armageddon had certainly lessened since the ‘Red Scare’ days of the 50s and 60s. Then there’s the subject matter and plot- ‘supercomputer almost destroys world via nuclear war’ must have seemed terribly futuristic and sci-fi, but several years of filmmaking have rendered the idea somewhat cliched; it’s no coincidence that the film’s 2008 ‘sequel’ went straight to DVD. In an age where computers have now become ubiquitous, the computing technology on display also seems hilariously old-fashioned, but a bigger flaw is the film’s presentation of how computers work. Our AI antagonist, ‘Joshua’, shows the ability to think creatively, talk and respond like a human and to learn from experience & repetition, all features that 30 years of superhuman technological advancement in the field of computing have still not been able to pull off with any real success; the first in a long series of plot holes. I myself spent much of the second act inwardly shouting at the characters for making quite so many either hideously dumb or just plain illogical decisions, ranging from agreeing on a whim to pay for a flight across the USA to a friend met just days earlier to deciding that the best way to convince a bunch of enraged FBI officers of that you are not a Soviet-controlled terrorist bent on destruction of the USA is to break out of their custody.

The first act largely avoided these problems, and the setup was well executed; our protagonist is David (Matthew Broderick), a late teenage high school nerd who manages to avoid the typical Hollywood idea of nerd-dom by being articulate, well-liked, not particularly concerned about his schoolwork and relatively normal. Indeed, the only clues we have to his nerdery come thanks to his twin loves of video gaming and messing around in his room with a computer, hacking into anything undefended that he considers interesting. The film also manages to avoid reverting to formula with regards to the film’s female lead, his friend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), who manages to not fall into the role of designated love interest whilst acting as an effective sounding board for the audience’s questions; a nice touch when dealing subject matter that audiences of the time would doubtless have found difficult to understand. This does leave her character somewhat lacking in depth, but thankfully this proves the exception rather than the rule.

Parallel to this, we have NORAD; the USA’s nuclear defence headquarters, who after realising the potential risk of human missile operators being unwilling to launch their deadly weapons, decide to place their entire nuclear arsenal under computerised control. The computer in question is the WOPR, a supercomputer intended to continually play ‘war games’ to identify the optimal strategy in the event of nuclear war. So we have a casual computer hacker at one end of the story and a computer with far too much control for its own good in the other; you can guess how things are going to go from there.

Unfortunately, things start to unravel once the plot starts to gather speed. Broderick’s presentation of David works great when he’s playing a confident, playful geek, but when he starts trying to act scared or serious his delivery becomes painfully unnatural. Since he and Sheedy’s rather depthless character et the majority of the screen time, this leaves large portions of the film lying fallow; the supporting characters, such as the brash General Beringer (Barry Corbin) and the eccentric Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) do a far better job of filling out their respective character patterns, but they can’t quite overshadow the plot holes and character deficiencies of the twin leads. This is not to say the film is bad, far from it; director John Badham clearly knows how to build tension, using NORAD’s Defcon level as a neat indicator of just how high the stakes are/how much **** is waiting to hit the proverbial fan. Joshua manages to be a compelling bad guy, in spite of being faceless and having less than five minutes of actual screen time, and his famous line “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play” carries enough resonance and meaning that I’d heard of it long before I had the film it came from. It also attempts the classic trick, demonstrated to perfection in Inception, of dealing with subject matter that attempts to blur the line between fiction (the ‘war games’) and reality (nuclear war) in an effort to similarly blur its own fiction with the reality of the audience; it is all desperately trying to be serious and meaningful.

But in the end, it all feels like so much add-ons, and somehow the core dynamics and characterisation left me out of the experience. WarGames tries so very hard to hook the viewer in to a compelling, intriguing, high-stakes plot, but for me it just failed to quite pull it off. It’s not a bad film, but to me it all felt somehow underwhelming. The internet tells me that for some people, it’s a favourite, but for me it was gently downhill from the first act onwards. I don’t really have much more to say.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?