I came across an interesting example of evolution that illustrates some of its important features: video game speedrunning. Instead of going for leisurely enjoyment, players frantically attempt to complete video games in the fastest possible time, gleefully taking advantage of glitches and quirks, some pretty mindblowing, while others take a robot to pull off. Finding and exploiting glitches is considered part of the “optimization,” rather than cheating, as noted:
Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The “game” then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.
This YouTube channel traces the history of a number of games, including classics like Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda. You can also watch attempts on Twitch or see speedrunning for charity World record strategies evolve much like living organisms:
- Optimization via heredity and mutation. That is, a player can start with a good strategy and refine it with changes.
- Tons of trial and error.
- Modularity. A newly discovered approach or glitch can often be used in sequence with previously known techniques.
- Progress can come in tiny improvements (tweaks) or major revolutions (jumps). As a result, the world record can remain stable for years, then be broken successively several times in one week. This is reminiscent of punctuated equilibrium.
- Glitches pierce the surface layer of reality to reveal the actual nuts-and-bolts of the games. Some evolutionary adaptations, like photosynthesis and magnetoreception, rely on the quantum-mechanical nature of our Universe.
I love visiting new cities, and seeing how other people solve problems in different ways. I also like tracing the “path dependence” of history, in which choices and events of the past continue to resonate into the present. During this trip, I learned that investigating even a tiny anomaly can sometimes lead to a major discovery, and also that some cities can remain prosperous by virtue of constant reinvention.
Places along the way:
- St. Augustine FL
- Founded in 1565. The fortress of Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish to protect their monopoly of natural resource plundering from Pirates and the British.
- Charleston SC
- Fort Sumter, which is on a island in the harbor, was the flashpoint of initial hostilities in the Civil War.
- Richmond VA
- Capital of the Confederacy and current home of the American Civil War Museum at the site of the historic Tredegar Iron Works.
- Fredericksburg VA
- Site of important battle that showed that the Civil War was not going to be as short as many people expected.
- Instead of claiming that “it wasn’t about slavery,” Southern apologists are now trying the opposite approach: OF COURSE if was about slavery, but you guys were cool with buying all our cotton and tobacco until one day you decided to imperiously and sanctimoniously crash our economy and way of life. As the reasoning goes, it was easy for Northern abolitionists to opine about the immorality of slavery; they were not totally dependent on the “peculiar institution”. The author of “all men are created equal [some exceptions may apply]” Thomas Jefferson said, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” I call this the “Captain Renault – I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” defense. For example, the Constitution (and many of its signatories) condoned slavery, and a litany of compromises were found to keep the agrarian and industrial halves of the country duct-taped together. Even Lincoln thought that Freedmen should not be allowed to vote, and only signed the Emancipation Proclamation in a cynical attempt to boost flagging support for the war. We reject this argument, because the fact that slavery was tolerated, either tacitly or explicitly, does not make it hypocritical to oppose it later.
- SUNY Binghamton is doing well as the result of State Funding for shiny new Engineering and Biotech Research buildings on Campus, as well as a Technology Incubator downtown. However, the city overall is still feeling the effects of factory closures.
- Howe’s Cavern
- Pulling on a tiny thread can lead to major discoveries. Howe found these caverns when he was curious about why his Cows stood by a particular rock formation on hot days. The cool air from underground was the reason.
- Corning Glass Museum
- R&D by the Corning Glass Company has enabled it to transition from car headlights to iPhone screens. Its Gorilla Glass is light, thin, and highly scratch-resistant. The Main Street of the city of Corning reflects the commercial success that comes with continual innovation.
- Buffalo NY
- Very impressive Art Deco city hall
- Niagara Falls (Canada)
- A Steampunk homage to the hydropower generated at the falls
- Toronto Ontario. I noticed some subtle differences in Canada, when compared with the USA:
- Canadians Love Coffee: There was a Tim Hortons, 2nd Cup, and Aroma all in same food court
- Law Firm Radio Commercial: “Resolve Amicably”
- Corn Syrup is “Liquid Sugar” (Lack of Big Sugar Lobby to outlaw this)
- Temperature adjustment for Gasoline
- Bus: “Sorry, out of Service”
- Bus-Only highway lanes
- “Hydro-Company” instead of “Power Company”
- There are no more pennies, so if you pay cash, your charge is rounded to the nearest nickel. (Thus, you should wait to see if it will be rounded up or rounded down before you decide to use cash or a credit card)
I was lucky enough to be in Toronto for Canada’s Sesquicentennial, which apparently is celebrated with a giant rubber duck.
- Geography is Destiny(?)
- Pittsburgh PA
- Built on the location of Fort Pitt, at the river confluence. With water access to the Ohio/Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic network, as well as newly built railroad, steel manufacturing (and theater) took off. Now, it has transitioned to a technology center.
- West Virginia
- Very mountainous, for a very particular reason. The major proponents of secession were wealthy planters in Virginia. WV was formed because the Mountaineers, who lived on land not suitable for cultivation, wanted to stay with the Union. Today, this makes the state more reliant on the coal industry.
- Charlotte NC
- Build on an early Colonial “Great Wagon Road“, it is now a Financial Hub with many Glass Skyscrapers
- Savannah GA
- The settlement was planned with Squares as “Scaffold” for public goods.
“Oglethorpe’s plan for settlement of the new colony had been in the works since 1730, three years before the founding of Savannah. The multifaceted plan sought to achieve several goals through interrelated policy and design elements, including the spacing of towns, the layout of towns and eventually their surrounding counties, equitable allocation of land, and limits to growth to preserve a sustainable agrarian economy”
On this trip, I heard people in Toronto praise their single-payer healthcare system, and radio hosts in Georgia demanding the repeal of Obamacare. Canadians wondered if their celebrity Prime Minister was receiving just a bit too much fawning on a overseas trip to Ireland, while North Carolinians beamed with pride for a President who defended “Western Values” in Warsaw. In conclusion, if you live in a Whole Foods County or a Cracker Barrel County, consider a trip to the other. City-dwellers can learn a lot by driving out on the open road and turning on talk-radio.