Sad: creator of Diplomacy board game dies

I was not aware that the founder of the Diplomacy board game was a Chicago area resident but after his death last Monday, both Chicago newspapers ran interesting bits. Here is a little from the Chicago Tribune obituary about how the game came to be:

The final inspiration came when Mr. Calhamer was at Harvard and, in a class on 19th century Europe, taught by Sidney Bradshaw Fay, he read his professor’s book, “The Origins of the World War.”

“That brought everything together,” Mr. Calhamer told Chicago magazine in 2009. “I thought, ‘What a board game that would make!'”

After being rejected by several game companies, Mr. Calhamer in 1959 published on his own 500 copies of Diplomacy, and the game came to develop a relatively small but extremely devoted following…

Mr. Calhamer dropped out of law school after a year and a half, then took the foreign-service exam and spent three months on a temporary assignment in Africa. When he returned, he continued to work on perfecting the game and joined Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory in Waltham, Mass., where he did operations research, a scientific approach to military problem-solving.

“He was hired because of the game,” Richard Turyn, a mathematician who worked at Sylvania, told the Washington Post in a 2004 feature on Diplomacy.

And here is more from the Chicago Sun-Times:

With its shifting alliances, deception and backstabbing, Diplomacy resembled a Fortran-era version of TV’s “Survivor” — set in pre-World War I Europe. Reportedly, it was popular with President Kennedy, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It’s in the Hall of Fame of both Games Magazine, and boardgamegeek.com, where fans worldwide are mourning his passing…

“In many ways, the hobby game industry as we know it owes its existence to Allan Calhamer,” Webb said. Diplomacy “moved away from pure strategy games like chess and from straightforward die rolls for conflict resolution, and introduced bluffing, lying and manipulation. . . . Diplomacy opened up entirely new dimensions to gaming, truly bringing a new level of social interaction into gaming, a legacy that can be seen today in hundreds of hobby games.”

“It sort of started a new genre of games, because you’re playing up to seven players, and making secret deals, and then coming back to the board and making your moves,” said Wayne Schmittberger, a game designer and editor in chief of Games Magazine, who used to stay up all night to play it at Yale University…

One fan, Jim Burgess, wrote about how he reconciled his religion and the game’s treachery in an article on diplomacy-archive.com: “Why I am a Christian” and a Diplomacy player.

My own thoughts:

1. Diplomacy is a fantastic game and superior to Risk because it relies on conversation and negotiation. Its biggest drawback is that it takes forever to play. There is something about the interaction that is unique; impression management means a lot.

2. I played a number of times in person during college and then multiple games by email (though not for some years now). Of course, the outcome was often not what I wanted. Inevitably, the game hinges on backstabbing moments where one player is able to gain an upper hand over another. This often requires just getting one center more than another player.

3. I still prefer playing as Russia, one of the seven powers at the start of the game, which to me still has the most risk and reward.

4. My favorite website for the game is diplomacy-archive.com.

5. This game has a sort of cult status. It is difficult to find in stores and is not a well-known board game. I think more people should learn how to play.

Can you design an attractive “third place” library if it has no books?

A journalist asks an interesting question about libraries: can it be an attractive space if it has no books?

Whether the public library has a digital-only collection, a hard-copy collection, or a combination of both, it is first and foremost a place for ideas. Sure, the spare, clean lines of an Apple store brilliantly focus attention on the excellence of Mac products available for sale, but a public library needs to foster community, inspire idea cross-pollination, and help us draw connections between our past and our future. A public library needs to be a place of comfort  –  a place where its community can come to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Modern library designers are headed in the right direction when they reference sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s “third places.” A third place is an informal public space that’s neither work nor home where people can interact casually and exchange ideas. Third places are the oil that lubricates civic engagement, and Oldenburg believes they need to be physical, not digital. Physical third places bring people with different mind-sets and politics together, but virtual meeting places attract like-minded people, Oldenburg told JWT Intelligence in 2011.

In B.C., the West Vancouver Memorial Library, renovated some half a dozen years ago, did it right. The library is warm, friendly, modern and welcoming with many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction.  The new Surrey City Centre Library, which opened just over a year ago, did it wrong. Its design might be architecturally stunning, but its large white expanses feel cold and uninviting. Perhaps this will improve when the library gets busier.

San Antonio’s $1.5 million library will have tablets, e-readers and computers, but no physical books. Word is the 5,000 square-foot library will have 100 e-readers to loan out,  plus 50 onsite computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets. Borrowers will be able to check out e-readers for two weeks or simply load books onto their own devices, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The argument here seems to be that libraries are sterile places without physical books. While the San Antonio library branch referenced here seems to be more progressive in terms of technology, a trend I assume many libraries are trying to follow, it still does have e-readers. What exactly is it about books that makes a space less sterile, particularly if the writer above also suggests the best part of the library in British Columbia is that it has “many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction”? Can’t a technologically advanced library have a lot of little nooks? Perhaps books give off a sense of stateliness or learning.

I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: having lots of books might foster less social interaction and therefore make a library a less inviting place. Do people necessarily go to find books to read and have social interaction? Some people do indeed go to bookstores for conversations about books (and other media like magazines) but libraries have not traditionally been places for social interaction in the same sense as bookstores or coffee shops.

Even chimpanzees can play the Ultimatum game

One of the most famous experiments of recent decades, the Ultimatum game, was recently extended to chimpanzees:

This modified game, in which two chimps decided how to divide a portion of banana slices, seems to have revealed the primates’ generous side.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was part of an effort to uncover the evolutionary routes of why we share, even when it does not make economic sense.

Scientists say this innate fairness is an important foundation of co-operative societies like ours…

She added though that is was not clear that the chimps completely understood the design of the game and that, with just six chimps involved in the study, further evidence would be needed to show clearly that chimps had a natural tendency towards fairness.

It sounds like there is more work to be done to demonstrate consistent effects among chimpanzees. The way to do this is to replicate the game with a variety of chimpanzees in a variety of contexts. There may be two obstacles to this. First, it sounds like it took some time to train the chimps to understand the game, especially since the chimps were not directly offered food as a reward as this had skewed a similar 2007 study. Second, replicating the study elsewhere might lead to different results – kind of like what happens when an experiment changes from involving American undergraduates to other populations in the world.

Study finds significant overlap of online Facebook friends and offline friendships

A new study reinforces a consistent finding about Facebook friendships: people tend to associate online with people they know offline.

On Facebook, all of these complex and differentiated relationships get collapsed — flattened — under the label “friend.” But researchers at UC San Diego wanted to see whether it could figure out — just from people’s Facebook activity — who their closest friends were. They asked a survey group to list their close friends and then, using a model based on comments, messages, wall posts, likes, photo tags, etc. tried to see if they could say whether any given pair of people were close. They could do so accurately 84 percent of the time. These Facebook clues are “successful proxies for such real-world tie strength.”

Jason J. Jones, one of the study’s lead authors, say the findings contradict the common belief that people use Facebook to keep in touch with those whom they would otherwise lose touch with and use other means of communication (such as the phone) for their closest relationships. Rather, Facebook is just another space in which our social lives take place. The researchers found that comments were the most revealing of a friendship’s strength, followed by messages, wall posts, and likes. Least revealing were demographic information, such as having had the same employer or gone to the same school, and being invited to join the same Facebook groups. Additionally, the study’s authors found that public interactions such as comments and wall posts were just as revealing as private messages.

“This is a useful study even if it comes from the ‘duh’ department,” writes social-media theorist Nathan Jurgenson over email. “The notion that the Internet is, or ever really was, some other, cyber, space, is wrong headed.” In other words, of course our Facebook interactions reveal the reality of our friendships — they are part and parcel to our friendships. There aren’t two separate spheres of online and offline, but one continuous reality, which is at various points augmented by technology — the phone or Facebook, for examples — or the tools of the voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Terms like “real world,” “virtual world,” and “IRL,” which the study’s authors rely on heavily, undermine a better understanding of this integration.

This corroborates a consistent finding in academic work about Facebook and social networking sites: users don’t go out and meet a bunch of “random” other users. Rather, they tend to reproduce existing friendship and social networks in the online world. Some of these relationships might have faded away in the past, like making friends with people from grade school or past jobs, but much of the online interaction is a continuation of the interaction that is taking place offline.

The article does contain an interesting ending:

This is all follows pretty neatly from Jurgenson’s point that Facebook is a tool that augments our one reality, not a separate reality altogether. If we understand that Facebook is a space where our friendships occur and develop, we can begin to think about what the contours of that space do to us.

In other words, putting existing relationships in the online sphere can shape these relationships in unique ways. Thus, there is a two-way interaction going on: Facebook allows people to interact but it also shapes that interaction and what might be possible down the road in that relationship.

Generation gap: younger Americans don’t want Baby Boomer’s heirlooms/stuff

The Chicago Tribune profiles an interesting generation gap: Baby Boomers are worried their children and young adults in general aren’t interested in their family heirlooms and acquired stuff:

Passing down heirlooms from one generation to the next has long been tradition. But Copeland and many other baby boomers fear that their children and grandchildren will end up tossing the family treasures like a worn-out pair of gym shoes.

“A lot of young people are so transient; they don’t stay anywhere very long. They rent apartments and don’t own anything,” said Copeland, whose sons live at home. “They don’t want to be tied down to family heirlooms that don’t mean anything to them.”

Julie Hall, a North Carolina liquidation appraiser known as The Estate Lady, said this has become a dilemma for a growing number of middle-age people who are trying to come to terms with a harsh reality: Often what they consider to be jewels, their children and grandchildren see as junk.

“Though they have the best intentions, boomers have a tendency to keep too much stuff for subsequent generations, though the kids have already told them they don’t want anything,” said Hall, author of the book “The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.”

There are several social factors at work here which are noted in the article:

1. There are generational shifts at work from those who were alive during the Great Depression to Baby Boomers to Millennials. This affects things like consumption patterns, family patterns, and where people live.

2. We now live in a more disposable, cheaper culture. For example, the story talks about Millennials preferring IKEA furniture. Such goods are relatively cheap, come in a limited set of colors that match a number of things, and can be traded, discarded, given away, or sold fairly easily.

3. It sounds like Millennials are looking to have less stuff in general. While Baby Boomers might consider these things heirlooms, Millennials see it as clutter that must be stored somewhere and moved again in the future. Certain items may have value to a family but what good is it if it just sits there without being used much? The article suggests this may be due to younger Americans living in smaller spaces (while Baby Boomers have plenty of room in their larger homes) but it could also be tied to Millennials placing a higher value on electronics like laptops and smartphones. It has been argued Millennials are more interested in these personal electronic devices than cars and houses, traditional American consumer goods. Also, Millennials would be more interested in debating how someone’s digital files get passed down.

4. The article doesn’t mention this at all but I wonder if this reflects changing family structures. Heirlooms matter not because they are objectively valuable but because they hold sentimental value. Perhaps Millennials have less sentimental interest in objects? A positive spin on this would be that Millennials value personal relationships more but a darker interpretation could be that they simply haven’t had the same kind of deep relationships that would give objectives meaning. Plus, more Americans are living alone and this could make it harder to endow certain objects with enough meaning for a family member to feel the same way.

5. Another thing the article doesn’t suggest: perhaps Baby Boomers had too much stuff to start with. Is this the sort of problem that only arises in a culture that revolves around consumption and materialism?

The intersection of Chinese bridal couples asking for cash, Facebook, and protests

This could be a poster story for globalization: on Facebook, a Hong Kong bride asked for money from wedding attendees and this has attracted protestors to the wedding.

That’s the prospect facing one Hong Kong couple, who infuriated hundreds after the bride’s Nov. 2 Facebook post went viral.

“I’m not opening a charity….If you really only want to give me a HK$500 [US$65] cash gift, then don’t bother coming to my wedding,” she wrote earlier this month, according to an article Thursday in the Wall Street Journal China.

The bride’s identity and wedding venue were identified by social media users, and a protest was organized via Facebook. Nearly 1,000 have claimed they will attend.

A spokesperson for the hotel where the wedding will be held said they plan on honoring their contract with the couple.

Though giving newlyweds cash is a traditional Chinese custom, sociologist Ting Kwok-fai told The Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong weddings have grown increasingly extravagant in recent years. Engaged couples feel pressured to minimize the cost of the affair, he said, and in this case, the bride may be seeking to recoup some of the costs of the wedding.

Multiple social forces are coming together here in a new kind of way: traditional social norms, new technology and interaction on Facebook, and more public concerns about inequality and conspicuous consumption. This reminds me of the classic 1929 work of the Chicago School of sociology titled The Gold Coast and the Slum. While studying neighborhoods just north of the Loop in Chicago, Zorbaugh discussed the social interaction between some of the wealthiest Chicagoans and some of the poorest Chicagoans. While the two groups certainly knew about each other through walking in or passing through neighborhoods or reading news in the newspaper, there was little direct social interaction. For example, some of the wealthy socialite women tried to start aid groups to help these nearby poor neighborhoods but could not get much participation from the poor neighborhoods.

Today, some of these barriers are reduced because of Facebook and other technology. Again, there is likely not a whole of physical social interaction between those with a lot of money and those without. In Hong Kong, you can walk down Nathan Road in Kowloon and find the some of the world’s most exclusive brands. If you turn off the road several blocks to the west, you are among nondescript apartment complexes with little glitter or glamour. Yet, these new technologies allow for more awareness and more reactions which could then coalesce around social action. The socialite wedding announcement in the prestigious newspaper 50 years ago that would have drawn less attention has now turned into Facebook-announced weddings that can quickly become very public.

Encourage research collaboration by overlapping daily walking paths

Lots of academics are talking about interdisciplinary research and teaching and a new study helps point the way forward: make sure different groups have overlapping daily walking paths.

Researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings, he said.
One of these assumptions is that passive contacts between inhabitants of a building—just bumping into people as you go about your daily business—makes it more likely that you’ll share ideas and eventually engage in formal collaborations. This assumption is based on the work of ISR researcher Leon Festinger, who studied the friendships that developed among dormitory residents in the 1950s.
Owen-Smith and colleagues examined the relationship between office and lab proximity and walking patterns, and found that linear distance between offices was less important than overlap in daily walking paths. They developed the concept of zonal overlap as a way to operationalize Festinger’s idea of passive contact. “We looked at how much overlap existed for any two researchers moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator,” Owen-Smith said. “And we found that net of the distance between their offices, for every 100 feet of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 percent and grant funding increased between 21 and 30 percent.”
Owen-Smith and colleagues also found that the likelihood of passive contacts can be more simply assessed by using a measure of “door passing”—whether one investigator’s work path passes by another’s office door.

This sounds like a more small-scale study but it ties into the broader concept of compulsion of proximity. Put people in spaces where they are more likely to run into each other and they are more likely to interact face-to-face. This would go for making friends on a dorm floor in college (random assignments lead to college long or life-long friendships), finding marriage partners through social networks , and apparently works for researchers.

Why New Yorkers and pigeons get along

A sociologist explains the social interaction New Yorkers have with pigeons:

For more than three years, Jerolmack observed the ways in which people interact with pigeons in cities. His forthcoming book, The Global Pigeon, which, as he put it, seeks to examine “our social experience of animals,” draws from that research. Yesterday evening he spoke about our own city’s rather vexed relationship to the birds.

In the 1960s, for instance, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the former city parks commissioner and longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not to mention the subject of a famed John McPhee New Yorker profile from 1967), called pigeons “rats with wings,” an epithet—often wrongly attributed to Woody Allen—that really stuck. Hoving cited the species, along with litterers and vandals, as a plague on Bryant Park. The park’s supervisor at the time, Andrew Petrochko, told the New York Times that “the homosexuals … make faces at people [and] once the winos are dried out at Bellevue, they make a beeline for Bryant Park.”…

Despite their bad reputation, though, Jerolmack noted that our urban encounters with pigeons “are profoundly social.”

“The impulse to feed pigeons is not so different from wanting to chat with strangers,” Jerolmack said, speaking about one of the subjects for his book, Anna, the elderly pigeon lady who regularly feeds the birds at Father Demo Square, the tiny enclave in the West Village where Jerolmack’s research began.

This sounds like it could be a testable hypothesis: do city dwellers have more positive, social relationships with wildlife (not including pets or animals connected to a household) than people who live in suburbs or rural areas? Cities aren’t typically known for their wildlife but perhaps this could be tied to Simmel’s arguments in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He suggested there were too many people for individuals to interact with in big cities so they would have to develop blase attitudes to protect themselves. But what if they could interact safely with pigeons (and even ducks and squirrels)? Or perhaps this is tied to romanticized (or real?) notions residents have about needing to connect with nature in the middle of the “concrete jungle.”

Illustrating the issues of food, technology, and human interaction at Chipotle

Chipotle has clearly staked its place as a progressive fast food restaurant (though they would claim they are between fast food and sit-down restaurants) with no antibiotic meat and organic fillings but it too struggles with some basic issues present in today’s economy: how much should companies rely on human employees versus using cheaper technology?

Like others in similar positions, he’s got a wide palette of gee-whiz technologies at his disposal — tablets for ordering, mobile payment systems, in-store ATM-like machines for ordering that replace cashiers. Yet he eschews most of them. He’s in no rush for tech to dramatically change the Chipotle experience at its more than 1,300 stores worldwide.

He hasn’t found the perfect solution yet. And, besides, he likes the human interaction.

That said, Chipotle, based here, happens to have a wildly popular app, a free tool that shows you where the nearest location is and lets you order and pay on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Nearly 5 million customers have signed up since 2010 and use the app to go straight to the front of the line to pick up their orders…

But that’s about as far as he wants to go. A future where all orders are made digitally?

“I hope not,” Crumpacker says. “I hope the experience of coming into Chipotle and ordering on the line is substantially superior to ordering on the phone. There’s all this communication as you watch what’s being made.”…

Meanwhile, Crumpacker hopes his next in-store tech play is a mobile payment system so customers can shave a few seconds off the checkout process by paying for menu items on smartphones. He’d like to see a standard on all phones that would support his in-store system…

“Consumers go to restaurants to be served,” she says. “The human element is part of the restaurant experience.”

This is an interesting explanation of the restaurant experience: people like the human element of service (though they are clearly paying for it). I suspect this may not really be the human element that people enjoy about restaurants. How many people really enjoy interacting with the waitstaff and other employees versus the opportunity the setting provides to interact with those at the table and to be part of and observe the social scene taking place around them. This could be a big difference between the Chipotle experience and eating at an urban cafe: Chipotles are often located in suburban settings where one may be able to sit outside or look outside but the primary view is of parking lots and speeding cars. In contrast, a full service restaurant offers more of a scene, particularly if located in a more urban setting where there is a mix of activities. Perhaps we need a sociological experiment to tease this out. Such an experiment could be based on a three by two table: fully mechanical food delivery versus human preparation (Chipotle) versus full service and then placed in a more dull setting versus a more happening location.

The article makes mention of Chipotle’s dropping stock price since mid-summer and I wonder if this is what will ultimately force the chain’s hand: if they need to demonstrate higher earnings and labor costs are too high, technology might be the way to close this gap. Or what might happen if Chipotle employees start demanding higher wages and/or more benefits? At that point, perhaps human interaction simply becomes too expensive, a luxury, as consumers might miss being served but would also not like to pay higher prices.

Quick Review: Alone Together

I finally got around to reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together after hearing about it from another friend. Here are some thoughts about this book that explores our relationship with technology.

1. I’m generally sympathetic to Turkle’s arguments that we need to think more about what technology does to our lives. If you were to sum up her argument, it would look something like this: we need to make sure we master technology rather than letting it master us. It may offer some benefits but it also has downsides and we have a choice to make.

2. Turkle has a fascinating background in studying human interaction with robots, everything from Furbys and Tamogatchis to robots intended for care for the elderly. I think she does a strong job in her discussion about using robots to care for the elderly: do we want to be a society where fellow humans don’t want to care for people because it is more efficient to use robots? As Turkle suggests, discussions about technology shouldn’t just be about efficiency; we need to weigh the lost human component.

3. Some critiques:

a. Turkle talks about phenomena that don’t apply to everyone and then implies that it could happen to everyone. Take Second Life as an example. Turkle discusses the implications of people creating alternative personas that end up not just providing an outlet for people to try to improve themselves (say by learning to be more assertive) but become preferred alternatives to human interactions. Second Life is indeed a unique space and maybe such spaces could become more common but it has remained relatively limited. According to Wikipedia: “In November 2010, 21.3 million accounts were registered…” Compared to Facebook and other programs, this is a drop in the bucket. And it doesn’t exactly work this way in Facebook – while users clearly have and take advantage of space to present themselves in a certain light, they don’t typically create complete alter egos and their profiles still contain some truth.

b. I felt Turkle could stress the positives of technology more. It is interesting that she admits that she too has given in to these things such as using Skype to communicate with her daughter who goes abroad for a gap year. She tends to talk about what could go wrong without discussing what usually does happen. For example, she talks about what can go wrong with Facebook without discussing why people continue to use the site. Indeed, my own research shows that teenagers are well aware of the dark sides of Facebook and take some steps to minimize issues like privacy concerns or who they become friends with. Sure, users could become friends with strangers or completely misrepresent themselves in their profile but many do not.

c. I was continually struck by Turkle’s psychological and personal approach. A number of the chapters end with Turkle expressing her own misgivings about technology and asking if it has to be this way. While she hints at this throughout the book, I kept hoping she would expand her vision and talk about the bigger implications for society. What happens if we have new generations that accept all technology without questions? What happens if we care for all of our elderly with robots? How will institutions like schools or governments change because of pervasive technology? I suppose this is the sociologist in me. Also, she relies a lot on interviews and personal observations and there is little in the way of large-scale data.

d. This is tied to my comment about the big picture; Turkle suggests at the end that we all need to make individual choices about technology as we can’t stop it all. She is correct…but there are certainly larger-scale things that could be done to make sure we remain the masters of technology.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking book that left me somewhat depressed about our future with technology. At the least, we should heed Turkle’s admonition to slow down and think about the implications of technology before wholeheartedly jumping in.