Alex Strinka

Cosmic Clicker

I've made a new game called Cosmic Clicker! The premise is that you're building a colony on an alien planet.

It's inspired by Cookie Clicker and other similar incremental games. It's relatively small and short compared to those other games. I have some ideas about features I can add, but those will have to wait.

There's not really an ending, at least not yet. It's just about making the numbers go up.

On a side note, the background images are AI generated. Most using NightCafe, a few with Bing. There's an ongoing debate at the moment about whether AI art is art and whether it's moral and whether it's plagiarism. That's a topic for another blog post. All I'll say here is that I have no qualms with using those tools.

Since those images are mostly covered up in the game itself, here they are so you can see them fully. Click on them to see the high-res versions.

Free Will
A hot dog

The concept of free will, as imagined by AI

There's a common argument that the laws of physics means that free will doesn't exist. That argument is complete nonsense.

Before addressing that argument directly, I'm going to discuss what free will actually is. Free will means that my actions are a consequence of my beliefs and my preferences. Simply put, it's the difference between walking through a door on your own and being pushed through a door by an external force.

I think that this is very clearly a useful distinction to make. There's definitely some gray area where it's not clear if an action is a result of free will or not (for example, when a person with OCD acts on a compulsion). But I think most actions pretty clearly fall into one of those two categories. And that's what I mean when I say that free will exists. It's a useful category.

Some people say that because the laws of physics are deterministic, free will doesn't exist. We are all just billiard balls bouncing around on paths that can't be deviated from. If you set up exactly the same starting condition, then exactly the same things will happen. In my view, this doesn't contradict the existence of free will. In fact, free will requires determinism. My beliefs and preferences are physical things. They're patterns in my brain. I don't know the details, but those physical parts of me interact with my nerves and muscles and other physical parts of me to cause me to act. If my actions were not determined by my physical self, well then, those actions wouldn't really be my choices.

(Tangentially, some people say that determinism contradicts free will, but free will exists because quantum physics isn't deterministic. First of all, whether or not quantum physics is truly non-deterministic is still up for debate. But more importantly, that doesn't actually support free will. If my actions are a result of random chance, then they're not a result of my beliefs and preferences.)

An argument for why determinism negates free will is that of counterfactuals. That is, the idea that you could have acted differently given the same conditions. I agree that, if determinism is true, given exactly the same initial conditions, a person will make exactly the same decisions. But I don't think that's really what people mean when they say you could have acted differently. The thing is, a person's beliefs and preferences change all the time, without changing who they are. For example, if I'm hungry, I want to eat. Then I eat, I'm no longer hungry and I don't want to eat anymore. My preference has changed, but I'm still the same person. So when I say that I could have acted differently given the same conditions, I mean the same external conditions, but my internal state could vary slightly.

There's also an argument that even if your actions are caused by your beliefs and preferences, those actions still aren't a result of free will, because you didn't choose to have those beliefs and preferences. My response is that that doesn't matter. My beliefs and preferences are mine, regardless of where they came from. The molecules that are now in my arm came from food I ate. Those molecules weren't part of my body before but now they are. Likewise, my beliefs and preferences have been influenced by things outside of me, but they're still a part of me now. And it seems to me there's a worthwhile distinction to be made between someone pushing me through a door, and someone convincing me to walk through a door.

I think the real reason people think determinism prohibits free will is an implicit (or explicit) belief in a non-physcial self. The laws of physics as we understand them don't permit physical things to be influenced by non-physical things. If you think your beliefs, your preferences, your self exists as an incorporeal soul, then yeah, physical determinism means that incorporeal soul cannot be responsible for your corporeal actions. My response to that is simply that there is no such non-physical soul. We are physical beings, through and through. Our bodies, our brains, our minds, our thoughts, our feelings, are all physical things, and they are not in any way lessened by that.

Now, a discussion about free will isn't complete without talking morality, if only because everyone else always talks about how the two are related. People say, for example, that free will is required to pass moral judgements, or it's immoral to punish someone if they don't have free will. My thoughts about morality aren't entirely settled, but I'll say this much. If a river floods and destroys some buildings, and then the people who lived there build a levee to reduce the risk of future flooding, that doesn't require those people to make a moral judgement of the river, nor is it a punishment on the river. It's just people acting to prevent future harm. If a person has an epileptic seizure while driving a car, we take away their driver's license. That's not a moral judgement, we don't think a person with epilepsy is evil. It's just acting to prevent future harm. If a person murders another person, we want to act to prevent future harm. Knowing the cause of that killer's behavior is important in figuring out what the best way to prevent future harm is.

Furthermore, if a person acts with free will, then that person can respond to incentives and be negotiated with. You can say, "If you kill someone, then we'll imprison you" and if that person believes you and their preference for not being imprisoned outweighs their preference to kill someone, then they'll act on their beliefs and preferences and not kill someone. There's a lot more that can be said about that, but that deserves it's own post.

Just as my beliefs and preferences have been influenced by things outside of me, my thoughts about free will have been influenced by reading things other people have written about it. The most notable is Eliezer Yudkowsky. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is also great if you want a detailed history of every argument about free will.

Dolly Zoom

This video shows some good examples of a dolly zoom.

So, how does this work?

Imagine you're standing in one spot, and a person is 10 feet in front of you, a house is visible behind the person 100 feet in front of you, and a mountain is visible behind the house miles away from you.

Now consider what happens if you move 10 feet backwards. The person is now 20 feet away from you, so the distance to the person has doubled. But the distance to the house has only increased by 10%. And the distance to the mountain is negligbly larger than it was before.

That means that, from your point of view, the person now appears to be about half as large as they did before, while the house will only be about 10% smaller, and the mountain will have barely changed at all.

Now, imagine you look at the person through a camera, and you zoom in, so they look twice as large. The zoom affects everything equally, so everything gets twice as large. Now the person looks as large as they did before, but the house looks significantly larger than it did before, and the mountain looks almost twice as large.

Here's an interactive demo of that. There's a small red sphere close to the camera, a larger blue cube farther from the camera, and a very large green triangle very far away from the camera. The top half is a side view, showing the camera and its field of view. (The green triangle isn't visible, because it's ten times farther away from the camera than the blue cube.) The bottom half shows what the camera sees.

Camera position: Zoom: Focus:

The sliders let you adjust the camera's position and zoom. You can see that when you adjust the zoom, the camera's field of view changes, and from the camera's point of view, the sphere, cube and triangle all grow and shrink proportionally. But when you move the camera, the apparent size of the sphere changes much more than the cube, and the triangle barely changes at all.

When you select a focus and move the distance slider, the zoom slider changes simultaneously, to keep the focused object the same size, creating a dolly zoom effect. Notice how, at the position of the focused object, the field of view has the same size, while at points closer and farther away, the field of view gets bigger and smaller.

This is actually closely related to parallax. That post shows what parallax looks like when you move left and right. This is what parallax looks like when you move forward and backward.


Here's a quick experiment you can do right now. Look at something that's at least a few meters away from you. For the sake of a concrete example, I'll say a lightswitch that's on the far side of the room, but it could be anything. Now, close one eye and hold up your thumb so it covers the thing you're looking at. Then, close your open eye and open your closed eye.

Suddenly, the lightswitch (or whatever) is no longer covered by your thumb! Why?

Your thumb is directly between your first eye and the lightswitch, thus blocking its view of the lightswitch. But your second eye is in a slightly different place, and the line that goes from it to the lightswitch is not blocked by your thumb, so it can see the lightswitch.

This is an example of a phenomenon called parallax. It shows up in many situations and has practical applications too, so let's look into it in more depth.

Let's start with the basics. You know how when an object is close to you, it looks bigger than when it's far away? That's because we don't directly perceive an object's size or distance. We can perceive the direction to an object and the difference between different directions. Here, I'll show you what that means.

Click or tap and drag to move the red circle.

The dot on the left represents your eye, and the circle on the right is an object. The marked angle is the subtended angle, or the angular size of the object. The direction from the eye to the top of the circle is different than the direction from the eye to the bottom of the circle. The closer the circle is to the eye, the bigger that difference is, and hence the bigger the circle appears to be to the eye.

And of course, this works exactly the same when you're looking at the distance between two objects. The direction from the eye to the first object is different than the direction from the eye to the second object. The closer the two object are to the eye, the bigger that difference is, and so the apparent distance between the objects gets larger.

This is also why things that are far away appear to move more slowly. The farther away they are, the smaller the distance they move appears to be, but they still take the same amount of time to move that distance.

You can flip it around so instead of the object moving, you're the one that's moving. It's exactly the same situation, just from the opposite point of view. That's why when you're driving in a car nearby things like houses and trees go by very quickly, but distant things like mountains go by much more slowly.

Instead of one observer that's moving, you can have two observers in different places, or just two eyes. The direction from the first eye to the object is different than the direction from the second eye to the object, and that difference gets bigger the closer the object is to the eyes.

This is one of the ways you can tell how far away something is. When you look at something very far away, your eyes are nearly parallel, but when you look at something very close to you, you have to cross your eyes.

That's how stereograms work. You show one picture to one eye, and a picture that was taken from a slightly different position to the other eye. Here's an example. Cross your eyes until the two images are on top of each other. When they line up, you should be able to see the trees and houses "pop out" in front of the skyscrapers.

This is actually how astronomers can measure the distance to nearby stars. The Earth circles around the Sun, so in six months it will be about 300,000,000 km (186,000,000 miles) from where it is now. That's a very, very large distance, but even then the parallax deviation of the nearest star is less than 0.001 degrees. This was actually used as an argument in favor of geocentrism, because that was too small for anyone to measure until the 1800s. They thought it was more likely that the Earth was stationary than that the stars were millions of times farther away from the Earth than the Sun.

Ask Culture and Guess Culture

One source of interpersonal misunderstanding and conflict is the difference between Ask Culture and Guess Culture.

In Ask Culture, you're allowed to ask for just about anything, and you also have to accept that your request might be denied. In Guess Culture, you can only ask for something that you're confident the person you're asking will be willing to provide. When people from Ask Culture and Guess Culture interact with each other, it's easy for both sides to the see the other as rude.

Although the difference is framed in terms of making requests, I think it has more to do with whether or not you're allowed to deny a request.

In Ask Culture, you're allowed to deny a request for any reason. But in Guess Culture, denying a request is considered impolite, unless you've got a really good reason. If someone makes a request that you just don't want to accept, you're forced to either do the thing even though you don't want to, or be impolite by refusing. Which is where the implicit rules about what you can request come from, because you don't want to put someone else in that situation, or for someone else to put you in that situation.

Furthermore, it's not a simple dichotomy. What counts as a really good reason to deny a request will vary from culture to culture, and some cultures will have more or fewer than others.

A related topic is making offers. In some cultures (at least, so I've read) you're expected to turn down an offer. The first offer is only made to be polite. If they really want you to have it, they'll offer it again. It's considered rude to accept the first offer.

This feels to me like a continuation of Guess Culture. Not only are you not allowed to deny a request, you're required to preempt the request by making the offer first. But because you still might not want to actually fulfill the offer, the recipient is expected to turn it down.

Of the cultures I described, I think Ask Culture is the best. And I say that even though I'm more naturally inclined to Guess Culture. But, explicit communication is less prone to misunderstanding than implicit communication. Guessing what another person wants or is willing to do is generally less reliable than asking them.

While I do think we should strive to Ask more, we should also recognize that different people have different expectations and different preferences, and we should strive to be more accepting of those differences.

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