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Thinking about Imperfect Thinking

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Author’s Note — This is long and very self-absorbed, but has been weighing on me for a while.

I’ve wanted to be a Bridge expert since college. Not ‘expert’ in the sense of Life Master or one of the better club players, but “threatening to win a national event” expert. Or better.

In High School I’d expected to conquer chess, but achieved only tournament mediocrity after five years. Possibly — if I’d kept trying — I’d have pulled myself up into barely expert rank through sheer perseverance and the slow accumulation of knowledge. But I felt immensely frustrated, I wanted the fast accumulation of knowledge I’d encountered in so many fields. I can’t ‘see’ positions in my mind. I studied openings and would sometimes remember them, but often not. I studied endgames. I studied and studied but during games minutes would tick by. I would be “thinking,” but haphazardly. Loose thoughts, jumbled together in a tangled mass.

So I read and studied more.

One book gripped my psyche and captivated my thoughts. Kotov’s “Think Like a Grandmaster”. In the introduction Kotov tells about visiting a distant chess club andbeing asked to give an impromptu lecture. The crowd shouted requests, that Kotov review a master game or some new opening theory.

He demurs. “There’s no point in learning details if you can’t learn how to think. Let’s discuss thinking

Kotov sets up a position and turns to his audience, “Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to take over for a player who has fallen ill. It is our move, what shall we do?” The story — omitting much chess analysis — continues:

“There are two obvious moves (a kingside and a queenside move). Let’s try the a kingside attack. Does it work? Hm. …Kotov runs through a few moves… no, that last move seems to stop me. OK. What about a queenside pawn push? Hm … runs a few moves … no, that seems to be losing. It’s too slow. Back to the kingside. What if I prepare the sacrifice with this move? No. Hm. Still doesn’t work. Maybe if I do adjust my queenside pawn push.”

Kotov alternates between the two lines then exclaims Then you look at your clock and think “Oh my god, ten minutes have gone by! How could I have only analyzed two lines in ten minutes? I’m going to lose on time!”

And then Kotov grabs his king and castles, saying “So you just castle, without even thinking about it. Its probably safe enough.”

Kotov’s audience roars with laughter, and applauds. They recognize themselves. And I (a young teenager) recognized myself. Kotov then explained that Grandmasters think through a line only once, because they are sure their analysis is right and if they missed something, they are likely to miss it again. The rest of the book is his instruction on how to think. But I could never absorb the lessons, at least not to the level that satisfied me, and at some point I stopped playing Chess.

As this is ostensibly a blog about games, let me present a hand from a Bracketed Swiss (top bracket). (Skip ahead to the Post Hand Analysis, if you don’t care about the details).

Dummy S:QJx H:AJxxx D:Q98 C:Q9

My Hand S:Tx H:KTx D:KJxx C:K8xx

My RHO opened 1 Club, I passed, LHO responded 1 Spade and my partner doubled. RHO raised to two spades, and I bid 3 Diamonds, ending the auction.

I thought partner’s red suits would be equal (or diamonds longer), and could have bid 2N to let partner pick the suit, and I thought that when dummy came down, but I recognized that I could no longer do anything about that. Partner didn’t expect me to have the World’s Fair and compete to the three level, no doubt. Here’s the auction again:

1C   P  1S   X
2S  3D  All Pass

LHO led the club Ten.

After some thought I covered the queen and RHO won the ace. RHO then shifted to a diamond, ducked around to dummy’s nine.

My opponents have a Flight B national championship (I believe); they aren’t bad. Steady players. They make mistakes, but play steadily enough to win a long multi-day event against other Flight Bs.

What play should I make? Here’s my internal monologue:

First things first — Count! Spades are presumably 4-4. With 5-3 I’d have heard a support redouble.The opponents only have 18 points — RHO opened and LHO responded, so it could be 6 (on my left)-12 or 5-13 or 7-11 or maybe something like 4-14. Either opponent could be light. The latter is most likely if LHO has a stiff club, but RHO didn’t return a club.

LHO likely doesn’t have AK of spades, that would be an almost automatic lead.

[Not terribly extensive, but at least I did note those things and counted. That’s better than too many hands. Back to my thoughts…]

I see three options —

  • I could continue with diamonds. This will work spectacularly well if I pick up hearts. But RHO thought pulling trumps was OK. If I lead a trump I risk it going diamond ace and another
  • Or I could lead the 9 of clubs and win the king then ruff, then cross in hearts and ruff another club.
  • Or I could float the 9 of clubs. That 8 of clubs is taunting me.

If LHO led the T of clubs from JT tight (which is the standard lead) the last would be phenomenally bad. Can I tell? I don’t think I can. Restricted choice says its likely Jx, but I don’t know.

I considered the pros and cons of each, but I also spent a fair amount of the time wishing I hadn’t been dealt the 8 of clubs. And considering if I could make inferences from their defense.

In the end, I decided to play the diamond queen (ducked all around), then a diamond to the king (RHO showing out and LHO winning the ace). The opponents cashed their spades (honors split) and put me on the board with a spade (I pitched a club). Thinking again, I decided that

  1. If LHO had the heart queen then he’d be stronger than opener, and
  2. If LHO had the heart queen then from RHO’s point of view hearts were potentially running so a trump shift would be ludicrous.

Given these two data points I finessed against RHO’s heart queen with the ten (winning), pulled LHO’s remaining trump and claimed the rest.

+110, score it up. LHO hissed “Anything but a trump switch” and I looked like a competent bridge player.

I can, in hindsight, say that LHO had 4=3=4=2 shape, but I never found out what LHO’s other club was.

Post Hand Analysis

After the entire hand, I still wasn’t sure whether my play at trick 3 was right. Even analyzing it here, it feels close. Also, I may have played wrong at trick one (although I think I didn’t).

But when I wrote “I decided to play the diamond queen,” I lied.

A more precise description of my mental state: “Being frustrated by not being able to see the correct answer, I eventually just called for the diamond queen to end my indecision.”

Even though it worked, my thinking had stopped. I didn’t call the diamond queen because I knew it to be right (or even right on probability). I didn’t choose it after deciding that my options were too close to call, or a coin flip. I called it out of frustration, before I had finished my analysis.

After the hand I remembered Kotov’s story.

I console myself by remembering that everyone makes mistakes. Here are some I witnessed (or made) in that single day. These players are the best teams of the field. (I am perhaps median in the bracket for strength a few strong players are much stronger than me, but its mostly a bunch of us weak experts).

… Playing in NT with AKQ8x opposite a stiff 9 an expert cashed AKQ and failed to note that the JTx fell on her right, so she called for the low three instead of the high eight.

… Amusingly enough on that hand I (holding 7652) played the 76 on the first two cards and then the 5, because I noted fall of the JTx, so of course assumed the expert would. Given that, I wanted to continue to play my cards top-to-bottom as an unmistakeable signal that I was guarding the upper suit.

After I played the five, I thought “Maybe I should have saved my five because declarer might not have be paying attention.” I decided I was silly, declarer was a solid expert.

When she called for the three I had to sheepishly follow with the deuce. The two of us started laughing and apologizing to our partners.

… I saw an expert make a no hope play that cost a contract. That time I did think “What the hell, its IMPs” and baited her (risking overtricks to offer the failing option). She took it. Dummy instantly noted her mistake.

…(They were also in the wrong contract because she didn’t bid correctly).

… Prosaically — A revoke.

… A few days earlier partner opened 1NT with a singleton because “he had a club mixed in with spades.” We were playing online, the computer sorts the hands. He literally mis-saw a pre-sorted hand.

I’m no better. I chronicled a near-national qualification for Flight A North American Open Pairs and disasters include a hand where I literally could not remember the most basic part of my system. Not obscure, rarely used parts of Polish, mind you. (We all forget the rare stuff from time to time). Bread and butter bidding, in this case — splinters. They show up once a session. (Technically my problem was remembering multiple systems and not being sure which one I played. I was playing standard splinters, and had been for several years at that point).

One partner calls it “Chicken Braining” when you suddenly don’t know things. Where a song name suddenly is gone, or where you can’t remember something until you stop trying. That happens to everyone, I think, but for things like “songs you haven’t heard in a decade,” not “bridge conventions you’ve used for two decades on a weekly basis.”

I remember in college (when I’d been playing for 3 years) making a boneheaded play and my mentor saying “You know better than that.” I remember the shame, because even at that point, I did. I couldn’t explain why I’d done the stupid thing.

I constantly bid or make plays I instantly recognize as mistakes; plays that make me mentally smack my head. I fail to count. I miscount. I can’t tell you the card partner played after the trick is over.

What’s so much worse, is that every once in a while, when I pay attention, I literally mis-see the cards played when I know exactly what I’m looking for.

The funny thing? I’m still a good player. Dangerous … but I rarely win. Too much chicken brain. I can remember the exact details of many of the hands I’ve played in the most recent session. People present me problem hands and I usually get them right. I really am an expert, albeit a weak one.

Kind of where I’d have ended up in Chess. My thinking is just as haphazard as before, but my study of Bridge put my chess study to shame. With so much study I can often recognize the critical point of a position, so I don’t have to think as deeply. It’s like hearing a very complex math puzzle and knowing the answer because I’ve already seen the puzzle solved. Sometimes I just do the obvious things instead of think. But other times hands I’d get right in a puzzle, I miss because I play automatically. Over a full session I’m likely to flub something stupid once or twice (if I’m lucky). Stronger experts don’t flub the easy stuff. And there’s luck … sometimes I can recover or the cards just don’t lie wrong to punish my mistake. (Sometimes my mistake gets lucky and does better than the right play).

At the club I win because the game is loaded with patzers. I won the last club game I played at. But Flight-A events?

I’m too erratic. I can’t really think.

One recent morning I woke up physical refreshed but mentally ambivalent and decided to write the day off. I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got out of bed at a time and sent a note to the office formalizing my status as absent-with-leave. Still feeling a bit groggy and meh, I decided to watch something uplifting and cheery and bright, with songs. (Moana). I felt a bit better, so I grabbed some lunch. Rather, I tried. But my favorite restaurant near my house has a “closed one day a month” policy (and two weeks once a year) that is eminently sensible if you are a restauranteur wishing to retain his sanity, but struck me as a gross injustice when staring at the locked door, craving Thai and only just then remembering their reasonable/infuriating “First Tuesday of the Month” policy.

I’ve had this restaurant be closed a few times in the last year, and each time I thought “Oh, right.”

After a pedestrian, non-Thai lunch I still felt tired, so I napped, and then finally I felt refreshed and OK. I decided to watch a movie that I’d had in my queue — The End of the Tour.

This movie recounts David Lipsky’s interview/road-trip with David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read any of DFW’s fiction, but I enjoy his essays. He writes well (of course), but also takes mundane topics in unexpected directions. And it stars Jason Segel. Now streaming on Netflix. Perfect for a lazy day.

But, much like the green printout sign on the Thai restaurant’s door, I had momentarily forgotten a fact.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide.  (On checking, nearly a decade ago).

The movie is not typical Hollywood. Two hours of writers talking about life, pets, writing, snack food, movies, fame, tobacco, addiction, and writing. It makes me wonder “Who thought this would make a good movie?” But, catnip to me. I routinely turn off movies after a few minutes, but I found this compelling even though nothing much happens.

Good movie. Uplifting it is not. And I had many strange thoughts that tie in with this essay.

(Don’t take this story to mean that I have severe depression. I don’t. But neither do I have the “can-do, turn that frown upside down, let’s face the world with gusty” spirit some people possess. Some days the thought of going out to meet the world fills me with dread. And I have enough resources to simply choose not to face the world, so I sit at home and watch TV, eat Thai food (or not), possibly play computer games or go to the bridge club or write about board games. I relax for one revolution of life’s game clock. This isn’t an “I hate my job” thing, either. I no longer go to the Gathering for ten days because even at five (sometimes less) the noise seems too loud, the colors too bright, and the crowd too maddening. I don’t have depression, so much as a preference for introversion. Perhaps they are related, but depression isn’t a problem for me).

Anyway, the movie is mildly depressing, but also intriguing because DFW spends an equal time contemplating important issues and a similar amount of time caught up with trivia. He describes Infinite Jest as about addiction and the question of “Why do we have so much more than prior generations, but are so much less happy?” (Which makes me want to read that, now). He deals with ethics and philosophy, and comes across as manic-depressive-ish. Not regarding energy, but on the politeness-axis. He is remarkably open in the interview, even dangerously unguarded despite knowing full well that the interviewer can crucify him, then suddenly acts paranoid and terse about letting Lipsky interview others. Wallace freezes up for hours, then suddenly is open and warm beyond measure.

And while I’m not depressed, over the last few years I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind. Not just normal lapses due to age, or minor facts like the First Tuesday Thai Shortage, or which celebrities are dead. Driving home from a tournament I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s to pick up some things. I’ve been there 50-100 times. I could not remember if it was before or after the highway exit I took. I knew where it was, in the relation to the buildings around it. But not in relation to the exit ramp. Could I get there without turning around?

Didn’t remember.

This is literally two miles from my house, a road I have driven for a decade. A store I’ve been to maybe a few times a month in the years its been open. The exit I take to my house.

Couldn’t remember.

I’m in a meeting meeting where a person says “We’ll agree to do A.” And so I say “OK, we’re doing A.” and the entire meeting says “No, we just agreed to not do A.” I don’t think I mis-heard. These things don’t happen often.

Just enough to make me wonder what’s wrong. I would think it’s normal age related issues, but then I look back on my chess career (as it were) and realize that I’ve always had some problems like this, but I’d just said I’m absent-minded.

Last season of BoJack Horsman featured two episodes (and a few scenes) inside a character’s head, instead of the typical third person POV. One shows Beatrice Horseman (BoJack’s mom) reliving her childhood memories, and also seeing scenes as she seems them now — with dementia.

The people have no faces. She can’t tell them apart.

The other episode was called “Stupid piece of Sh*t” and voices BoJack’s internal monologue: telling himself what to do, to be nice, to not eat food he doesn’t want, to limit himself to one drink.

For all the terrible things he does, he knows better. But he ignores his good intentions. Then he berates himself. (The episode title refers to BoJack calling himself a stupid piece of shit over and over).

It sounded like my internal bridge monologue when I just make a decision without thinking. “Why did I do that? I know better! You stupid *(#&.” Then, in the closing scene, BoJack’s daughter Hollyhock confesses that she has the same internal voice and asks “But, that’s just a stupid teenage girl thing? It will go away, right?”

BoJack assures her it does.

I forced my wife to watch the episode (she hates the show), because I felt like “Finally, someone gets it.” At the time, I felt such elation that one other person …. the writer of some TV show … had the same voice nagging them, berating them.

Thankfully– for me its mostly about being good at games. I’m not driving a Tesla into a swimming pool or getting blackout drunk or driving people away. I’m not suicidal. I’m just annoyed and insulting myself due to avoidable Bridge mistakes. Hooray for the relative unimportance of my terrible decision making!

Every time I sit down to play I tell myself, “this time, I’m going to pay attention, and I’m not going to make a bid or card play and just instantly recognize it as wrong. I’m going to think it through, I’m going to pay attention.”

Sometimes I don’t make it through the first hand.

The End of the Tour conveyed that DFW was self-aware, but not able to improve despite his awareness. (The movie does not touch on his abuse of women). As I said, not uplifting. BoJack suffers the same way.

After my day off I returned to work. Afterwards I swung by the used book store to see what they had and bought several Wallace books. One of them was “This is Water“, a college commencement speech presented in a nice little format and — as such — a ridiculous thing to buy, even used for five dollars.

Wallace talks about compassion, perseverance, and overcoming the problems of mundane existence. It has the following

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” … It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

(DFW hung himself).

A few days before seeing The End of the Tour I was tinkering with this article (even then several thousand words), struggling to describe my thoughts about being not-as-clever as I wish, feeling stupid about bridge, my patterns of thought. Parts of this essay are nearly a year old. (The parts with DFW are new). Trying to determine how much of this is just:

  • narcissism — I face problems that everyone faces
  • laziness — I don’t work hard enough, and could overcome these issues more effort
  • improper strategy — I have to accept my problems, but find superior work-around to solve them
  • Impossible to fix

I scheduled it to post (again) then pulled it (again) a week before I saw The End of the Tour and picked up the books.

So you’ll understand why another line from This is Water hit so hard.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

I want to re-iterate, I don’t feel depressed. Maudlin, perhaps. One reason I write about games is that it feels easy. Writing about other issues — I could stare at a blank page for hours and never put words down. I have. Writing on a deadline is one of the most terrifying things I’ve done.

And there is nothing inherently wrong about writing about games, or Baseball, or Harry Potter Fan Fiction, or Movies. Good writing is good writing. I don’t pretend all, or even the majority of my writing, is good. But I’m proud of this blog despite wishing I could get better (and spending some time on the mechanics of the craft). But (unlike Bridge or Chess) I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure. My inner voice has sometimes chided me about writing, but infrequently.  In the movie David Foster Wallace (the character) says something like (Paraphrasing) — “it’s fine, even great that Infinite Jest has become so popular and talked about, but even if it were read by only a handful of people I wouldn’t feel like I’ve wasted years of my life writing it.” I assume that David Foster Wallace (the person) said something similar. That struck me as a remarkably healthy attitude, one I wish to have.

Much of what I’ve written here is ephemeral, but I feel the same way about writing and want to feel the same way about the things my inner critic does nag me about.

I’ve long known about my mental quirks — just as many people take Psychology to try to solve their problems, my interest in Cognitive Science is trying to figure out my patterns of thought. (My interest in Cognitive Biases, Less Wrong, HPMOR are likely influenced the same way). For example, after quitting Chess I discovered studies that some people just don’t have as powerful of “a mind’s eye,” and adjusted my bridge strategy to use more literary memory techniques. I don’t exactly burn the midnight oil keeping up with latest science, but I do pay attention. After all, I’ve been calling myself a stupid piece of shit since I failed to master Chess. I’d like to get over it.

Last year Scott Alexander posted a book review that contains

Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

I eagerly read Scott’s post, which is difficult to summarize but says your mind is tries to reconcile top-down predictions against with bottom up sensory data (in a Bayesian framework). It will focus attention, discard data, and modify beliefs to get the best fit. It’s a compelling story (although there are problems).

It felt right (especially the attention focusing and data-ignoring) and explains quite a bit. It provided a framework to handle some (possibly most) of my mental lapses. If you expect to see something, you may see it if the data is only off a bit. (Who hasn’t mistaken a heart for a spade at some point? Just not at the most important tournament of their life….) It’s somewhat comforting.

Sadly, it doesn’t give me any practical advice about my problems, other than not to take bridge too seriously (and general mindfulness).

For all my complaining, my mind is phenomenally sharp. (Another of the reasons I’ve unscheduled versions of this post several times is fear that it reads as a humble-brag). I’ve taken pride over my quick thinking, but then feel ashamed because that’s like taking pride for being tall. Nobody picks their height, and nobody ever said “I thought being dumb seemed like the better choice.”

I can’t say I worked hard at it. It just happened. (I am firmly in the camp that you should praise children for effort, not brains, because people can improve their effort). I’ve developed strategies for maximizing my abilities and hiding my limitations from everyone.

Everyone does. We spend our entire lives working on them.

In terms of raw processing power I was dealt a great hand. I just have trouble focusing it. So, I put myself into projects where my strengths are obvious and my weaknesses are minimized. I spend time “thinking about thinking” because I’ve recognized that I’m good when I can enumerate options and rely on prior analysis, and not nearly so good when I have to do the work ‘at the table.’ (That is true for everyone, of course, but since I have real issues focusing at the table, especially true for me).

For some reason, I don’t mind working through a problem by writing. (Hence this post).

I’m not bad at it, even if I still mumble “Stupid” to myself a few times a session.

One of my bridge partners had a stroke last year.

It affected his game (especially in the first few months of his recovery). His concentration drifted. He got tired quickly. Things you’d expect. Textbook symptoms.

But surprises, too. His bidding became wildly aggressive (he even noted it), and he was not exactly on the low end of the aggression spectrum before. He’d quickly claim the contract when there were obvious plays for overtricks (at matchpoints as well as IMPs).  He’d sometimes notice after the hand (or session). Sometimes not. After a few months of recovery, he’s pretty much back to normal, but I sometimes spot a mistake I think he wouldn’t have made, pre-stroke.

And I have absolutely no problem with that. He’s had a stroke, why would I be annoyed at a lapse? I’m not a monster.

Here’s the first point to this long winded essay: its abundantly clear to me that the stroke is responsible for many of my partner’s mental errors.

I’ve spent 25+ years telling myself “concentrate,” “think clearly,” or “visualize the position in your head,” and not being able to. Telling myself to watch the opening lead and remember it, then forgetting. Falling into the rhythm of the game instead of counting. I spent decades berating myself, and just the last few years wondering … am I just not wired up in a way that lets me get this consistently right?

Is this just the intellectual equivalent of color blindness? There are people with aphasia, autism, who can’t read faces. Am I just missing some component?

I’m beginning to think so.

Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be Sherlock Holmes if he were a friendly guy interested in talking to other people. That’s the literary conceit, anyway … but isn’t it true? I see plenty of people trying to will themselves to be good at something, dedicating years of study to it, and being … mediocre, or worse. They can almost improve, but there are hard limits in many cases. I can’t taste what a super-taster does. That’s just a physical difference.

Ever since grad school I’m haunted, feeling that I’m an intellectual Moses, able to see the promised land but never destined to set foot in it. A lack of focus is fine in High School or College, but in Grad School everyone had my mental power and my inability to focus cost. Hard. I can’t make the cut to true expert…. in pretty much anything. I can get close. I’m not asking to hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth in game seven. I’m the guy toiling in the triple AAA league just hoping to make the big leagues. Crash Davis who hasn’t even achieved 18 days in the show.

“What if I’ve always been wired wrong?” That thought takes the wind out of me. Because if I’m wired wrong it sure looks great from the outside world. If I’m missing one component, I have several others most people lack.

But if I’m missing some block, can’t I just be kinder to myself?

Then I think “That’s an arrogant self-pitying thought, you asshole. You’ve heard lots of praise from people who’ve wished they could trade places with you. Just be better.” And I worry that this feeling (“It’s like colorblindness — unsolvable”) is just wishful thinking. An excuse to not get things right.

If I lost my legs I wouldn’t be surprised that I couldn’t walk (even if I still regretted not being able to). But I want to be able to solve my problem, and if I can I definitely should.

I remember an aphorism that “Sometimes there isn’t a problem to be solved, just facts you have to understand.” But now I’m thinking “Worship your intellect and you will end up feeling stupid” and it’s clearly true. I have. I could have used that advice decades ago. I should be kinder to myself.

Maybe I can find a better strategy to compensate. Perhaps I should meditate. Who knows.

I hope I’d have conquered this one after so many years of trying, across so many domains (not just games), but even trying to not worship my intellect I still naturally want to maximize it.

And now — after spending hours on this essay another quote from This is Water literally woke me up a few mornings ago:

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the
absolute center of the universe

I’ve seen others’ struggle. Watching BoJack my thought was “Ah, one guy gets it.” Reading HPMOR and the fundamental attribution error and knowing all of this about Cognitive Science and thinking about this since the stroke, and I’m just now entertaining the thought that “Everyone gets it.” (Or, if not everyone, a huge section of the population). And I’m looking back on my essay and re-reading my line about how David Foster Wallace seems self-aware and how that struck me.

Everyone else is self-aware. I’ve known that, of course. (I’m not a monster). But I don’t experience it. It’s the water I swim in. I’ve been struggling with this for decades, and now I wonder just how many people are.

I only noticed that David Foster Wallace was self aware because I can heard it in his voice (technically Jason Segel’s). Even then I had to literally have it spelled out for me in an essay. I hear Wallace … and BoJack  and all of Kotov’s audience and so many other characters who seem more alive than people I deal with because I got a glimpse of their point of view…. struggle with problems they intellectually know how to solve and can’t overcome.

And I see them fail. Kotov didn’t produce a room full of Grandmasters, but his book may have helped us all a bit.

I read David Foster Wallace’s speech about how to live a good life and avoid dying inside before you kill yourself.

But David Foster Wallace killed himself. With all his awareness, his depression wasn’t a problem he could solve.

Before I knew — intellectually — that I wasn’t alone. I’d struggled trying to get my inner critic to quiet down, while still trying to improve, but now I don’t feel alone. That won’t solve my problems, but it makes me feel like I should be kinder to everyone, including myself.

And that’s something.

PS — One of the final reasons I didn’t post this last year is that I felt it would be of no interest to anyone else, which I now see as the exact same lack of empathy as before. You can read This is Water, online.


Written by taogaming

August 12, 2018 at 11:30 am

Bah — Finance Majors

Or — as we call them around here — idjits.

I mean, how else can you explain the fact that when presented with a game rigged in their favor and offered the chance to bet real money repeatedly playing the game … in any amount they choose … as many times as they could play in 30 minutes

A full third of them lost money! More than a quarter of them went broke! Some of the test subjects were making a living working in investment firms!

Idiots, I say.

Certainly not gamers.

Definitely not gamers with a background in engineering or math.

Of the 61 subjects, 18 subjects bet their entire bankroll on one flip, which increased the probability of ruin from close to 0% using [the optimal strategy] to 40% if their all-in flip was on heads, or 60% if they bet it all on tails, which amazingly some of them did.

Read the full paper (Rational Decision-Making under Uncertainty: Observed Betting Patterns on a Biased Coin) then consider where your retirement savings are.

(Mine are in index funds).

Written by taogaming

November 4, 2016 at 8:34 pm

Posted in Misc, Strategy, Thoughts about Thinking

Tagged with

Screwtape discusses voting

My Dearest Wormwood,

After receiving your most recent letter, on your advice I watched the video on quick and easy voting for normal people. I am surprised that this comes as a revelation to you, since We who are down below routinely allow our charges to vote for a wide variety of things using what our patients semi-jokingly refer to as the Chicago Method (“Vote early and often”) and what your video refers to as Approval Voting.

And, as befitting our station, we scrupulously respect their votes whenever suits our mood. Which is more often than not, because all voting methods have flaws. Surely Our Father has taught you all the details of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which has dozens of applications to suffering and gaming. I myself learned it at an early age.

(A more pedantic member of our kind – although I doubt you will ever encounter one – may state that Arrow’s formal proof  does not  strictly apply here. Math is a realm of The Enemy – and as such I have no done no more than dabble, lest I be accused of heresy again –  but I believe the idea generalizes. I will check with several experts I am dining on tonight).

Whenever a vote is proposed, you should of course make sure the outcome is as you desire. The stakes are high!

The video numbers make for a poor example for more interesting applications, so let us juggle them a bit. Surely even a youngster such as yourself is familiar with creative accounting?

  • The five vegetarians prefer: Veggies, Burgers (w/Veggie option), Steak (in that order)
  • The three carnivores prefer: Steak, Burger, Veggie
  • The lone Burger guy prefers: Burger, Steak, Veggie

In all cases the 1st two are “acceptable,” so burgers get nine votes, and is an acceptable compromise.

First of all, note the obvious flaw with the system. It punishes excellence. This means that, despite all of its problems, you should suggest Approval Voting whenever possible. Your goal should be to promote mediocrity and lazy thinking in all aspects. Do this consistently and your patients will always dine out on the most milquetoast and bland meals possible, never taking chances, never risking sublime beauty!

Do not mistake my critique of this system – which is done as a general exercise to instruct my favorite nephew – for a serious criticism!

Now, let us make a small change.

If, on the final restaurant named, people don’t vote on something acceptable because they prefer the currently winning option. Now, so long as Burgers are listed last, Veggies will win, because the Vegetarians, being more delighted with the currently winning option (named first or second), decline to raise their hands for Burgers. Which will now lose 5-4, despite being a unanimous winner before!

Then simply force those shuffling carnivores towards their tofu. Demand their happiness while they respect the group’s decision. Be sure to smile broadly as you choke down your okra. Sing praises towards democracy, which levels all of our patients in the same way that water always strives for the lowest resting place.

(As to my prior criticism, I simply state that while Vegetarian restaurants can be excellent in theory, much like excellent non-alcoholic beer it does not occur in practice).

As always, he who sets the vote order (and he who votes slowest, deciding after others who have raised their hands) has an immense amount of control, particularly if they well judge the preferences of others.

These tricks (along with a few more which I dare not reveal, lest this letter is intercepted) will let you control the outcome with ease, which is why we are serving a slightly maggoty meatloaf for the thousandth night in a row instead of the exquisite venison or lovely pouched trout, both clearly visible in the cafeteria.

Your affectionate uncle,


[H/T to Chris Farrell’s twitter feed]

My first (semi-joking) comment was that the Tao of Gaming method was to have everyone list all their options, then reject them all and walk away. This prevents mediocre games, although I admit that also has problems. I had thought I tweeted a joke about that but, much like Screwtape, I prefer the old method and send my messages encoded in the pitches and volumes of screams, although I do keep up with the times and try to limit my conversation to at most 140 screams.

An amusing coincidence — I was already thinking about the Impossibility Theorem earlier today, since my side project incorporates a quote by Kenneth Arrow in the next chapter.

Written by taogaming

June 28, 2015 at 2:59 am

The AI Researcher Who Crowdsourced Harry Potter Fans

(Authors Note — I wrote this yesterday, shopped it around a bit, and decided to post it here instead. The dates are the real dates of when I originally wrote this. Contains some not too surprising spoilers for a Harry Potter Fanfiction).

Writers of Fan Fiction come from all walks, united by their love of the underlying book, movie, game (or whatever). And Harry Potter has an immense following at, with over who knows how many stories and hundreds of thousands chapters posted. Eliezer Yudkowsky writes one of the most popular, Harry Potter and the Methods or Rationality (or HPMOR). This story is explicitly a pedagogical device – a Rationalist tract to teach readers how to think better. (One of Yudkowsky’s other sites is “Less Wrong”) The sugar for this medicine go down is Harry Potter. Specifically, what if Harry Potter had been raised by a loving couple including a scientist, and blessed with a Richard Feynman like intelligence at a young age?

11 year old Harry James Potter – Evans – Verres lectures his friends (and Dumbledore!) about findings from cognitive science and regular science, including proper brainstorming technique, over-condfidence, and Bayesian thinking. Important psychological works like Cialdini’s classic book Influence or Asch’s Conformity Experiments are explained; numerous others are name checked.

It wouldn’t be popular without a great story. Harry fights bullies, leads an army in mock battles at school (replacing Quidditch), makes friends and enemies and conducts experiments on magic’s secrets. Harry pokes and prods, spells, sometimes with fantastic discoveries, sometimes to no avail. As the story progresses, he edges towards becoming a Dark Wizard himself. Harry jokes “World domination is such an ugly phrase. I prefer to call it world optimisation.” He’s a chaos magnet, polite but dangerous, a mile-a-minute mind in a world where almost anything is possible. He’s not infallible and not the Harry Potter you know; this is an 11 year old genius Muggles can’t handle. The Wizarding world has never seen his like.

Lectures mingle with the plot, all while finding time to make allusions, references and jokes about Rowling’s work and other classics. Harry is an 11 year old science geek; he knows all about Ender’s Game,  Batman, Army of Darkness, Star Wars and other comics, films, manga and books. He argues with Dumbledore via Tolkien references.

This peculiar Harry Potter fiction had been on hiatus after nearly 600,000 words when Yudkowsky announced (last year) that the final arc would be published between Valentine’s day and Pi Day (3/14). Fans rejoiced and online discussion blossomed again. For the last two weeks, chapters had been arriving every day or two.

February 28th, afternoon.

Then came Chapter 113, titled “Final Exam” posted on February 28th. This chapter is the hero’s low point, where things look bleakest. Harry is trapped by Voldemort and all the remaining Death Eaters, who have the drop on him. Voldemort (unlike the “canonical’ one from the books) won’t stupidly cast a spell he knows may backfire. This Voldemort agrees with Scott Evil (Doctor Evil’s nephew, played by Seth Green). No elaborate death traps and leaving the hero alone. Just shoot him. Voldemort has a gun (as well as a number of other lethal devices) because he’s worried about magical resonance.

So Chapter 113 ends … and the Author’s Challenge begins : the fans must devise Harry’s escape.

This is your final exam.

You have 60 hours.

Your solution must at least allow Harry to evade immediate death, despite being naked, holding only his wand, facing 36 Death Eaters plus the fully resurrected Lord Voldemort.

Any acceptable solution must follow a ridiculously long list of meticulous constraints: any movement, any spell leads to certain death. Nobody knows where Harry is (or that he was even missing). Harry could use any power he’d demonstrated (within those constraints) but couldn’t gain any new ones. There’s no Cavalry, No Deus ex Magica.  And ….

If a viable solution is posted before 12:01AM Pacific Time the story will continue to Ch. 121…..Otherwise you will get a shorter and sadder ending.

(Emphasis mine). A small section of the Internet exploded in disbelief.

Yudkowsky had done this before with a Science Fiction story called Three Worlds Collide. But this was on his old site with many fewer readers. I’d read the story well after he’d challenged his fans. Now he was working on a bigger scale. Final Exam was posted five years (to the day!) that Chapter 1 first appeared online. HPMOR has well over half a million page views. Readers faced having a story they’d invested weeks of reading (and sometimes years discussing) just end with the hero’s death. There seemed to be no solution. Voldemort, terrified and highly intelligent had planned this trap out in detail; Harry had blundered into it. (Being smart doesn’t magically give you all the critical information you may need, and Voldemort has decades of training and a few insights Harry lacked).

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres had, in the preceding chapters, solved complex puzzles and all of them played fair (within the constraints of the world) and provided enough clues to satisfy the strictest mystery writer. But this seemed impossible. Fans despaired. I concocted a solution requiring a Patronus, the Cloak of Invisibility, a time turner, the Sorting Hat and still required negligence on Voldemort’s part that would make SPECTRE rip up your bond villain card. Other solutions were not arguably better.

Complex problems are Yudkowsky’s day job, a Research Fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. He spends his time (when not writing about Hogwarts) dealing with thorny problems related to Artificial Intelligence – its benefits and risks. The big risk, basis for countless fiction from Frankenstein to Terminator, is “Can we control our creation?” Yudkowsky’s research aims to create guidelines for a Friendly Artificial Intelligence, a machine we can trust to guide humanity into a new Golden Age, and avoiding “Unfriendly A.I.”

Other researchers (See update at end) suggest we isolate A.I. from the internet (and machinery) to keep us safe. We’d keep the A.I. “In a box.” Yudkowsky contends that Artificial Intelligence worthy of the name will be so advanced it will simply talk its way out of the box (assuming it couldn’t hack its way out). To further this argument, Yudkowsky developed “The AI Box experiment” where one player takes the role of the AI and tries to convince his opponent (the “Gatekeeper”) that it is safe to release him. He’s done this several times, and published protocols for this thought experiment.

Yudkowsky has taken the role of the AI in those prior games. After all, He’s the expert and trying to prove the point. If he can convince you to let an unknown quantity run free; what problem would an AI have. You’d probably think it’s your idea all along. Yudkowsky does this in order to draw attention to the dangers of unfriendly AI development. Once the AI gets out, nobody will be able to put it back. And if the AI is unfriendly, that’s Extinction. Game over.

(For a much more detailed introduction to this line of thought, I recommend the Wait but Why articles The Road to SuperIntelligence, and Our Immortality or Extinction.)

March 1st, AM.

Some readers (most on the discussion group I follow) knew this; but this was fan fiction, not a serious research effort. Harry Potter, not HAL and Dave. Less than 24 hours after the challenge had been issued, some discussion groups proposed the thesisThe entire story had built up to renact the AI in a BOX thought experiment with Eliezer playing Gatekeeper against his entire fanbase.

The argument seems compelling.

  • Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres is a super-intelligent, rational being, capable of discovering the inner workings of magic (well beyond what Harry did in the Rowling’s series, even though the entire series of HPMOR takes place in his first year at Hogwarts).
  • He was acquiring power at an alarming rate.
  • He was now trapped with Voldemort himself ready to pull the plug.

Worse still, Voldemort knows that Harry Potter is not friendly. You would think this goes without saying, but Voldemort is not simply afraid for himself but for all wizardkind. (There’s a prophecy, and it’s a long, complicated story). Acting out of a fear of an extinction level event, Voldemort has done everything in his considerable power to catch and neutralize Harry Potter. And done it well. Harry can’t cast spells without permission. He can’t speak to anyone but Voldemort, who is about to pull the trigger. He’s even forced Harry to speak only the truth (via magic) and answer questions like “Have you thought of a plan to defeat me yet?” so he’ll know how long he can delay.

The only thing Harry can do is talk to Voldemort.

Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality — HJPEV

All the constraints were, proponents argued, a clue. In an earlier chapter HJPEV explains that a rationalist avoids needless complexity. And all the solutions proposed were fairly insane. Harry’s internal dialogue mentally “assigns penalties” to complex explanations. You can chart orbits with the Earth in the Center of the Solar System, but its much easier if you put the Sun at the center. The proponents for the box theory argued that fans couldn’t find a solution because they had put the earth in the center of the solar system. The fanbase was trying to write a Hollywood ending where Harry wins, the argument went. But in the real world people talk out their differences all the time. And people who are in a bad situation have to accept it. (That was an explicit lesson that Harry even learned in Defense class early in the story).

So, in this reading (which I consider more likely) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is no less than a five year buildup to Eliezer Yudkowsky taking the other side of the Box Challenge – the side played by the less intelligent person. Yudkowsky appears to have engineered a situation where a small but dedicated portion of the humanity simulates his AI for him in the Potter-verse. He’s spent years explaining how to calmly tackle a seemingly impossible problem, list assets, evaluate what they know and discern truth from fiction. He’s unquestionably provided ample motivation. With the deadline approximately 36 hours away, chat rooms are alive with proposals, debates, strategems, tactics, and detailed analysis of any and all relevant documents available on the internet. Arguments are weighed, flaws discovered and discarded and useful nuggets saved and added to a master list.

You know, like an AI might do.

Can the combined super-intelligence talk their creator out of killing their story, with the odds stacked against them? As day turns to evening on March 1st, some discussion groups aren’t interested in what Harry has, they are listing what he knows about Voldemort’s beliefs; what information he can volunteer that would stay Voldemort’s hand. Others are discussing Eliezier Yudkowsky’s beliefs and knowledge, adding another level of meta to the analysis. In the story, Voldemort himself knows (via magic) that Harry Potter cannot lie. What appeared to be a horribly binding constraint is suddenly a fantastic advantage. Could we trust whatever an advanced being with unknown (or malevolent) motives told us?

Watching the discussion forums with a bit over a day to go, I believe this is the broad stroke solution (with lots of in universe details to be worked out), although I’m irrationally attached to my earlier, needlessly complex answer. I believe this is the author’s intent. It’s elegant. In the universe, Harry Potter will (I suspect) exchange some information about Prophecies and then deduce an alternate (correct) interpretation where it is to everyone’s advantage to keep him alive. To let him out of the box.

In the real world, Yudkowsky gets another argument in his favor. “A few hundred or thousand people could do this to me. An AI could do this to you, easily.” I suspect the answer has already been posted, but I haven’t checked. The submissions page for the final exam already has three hundred thousand words. In less than 36 hours. The author has asked for help summarizing the solutions.

How does magic work in Harry Potter’s world? His experiments are still ongoing. Out here, in the real world, Teller (of Penn and Teller) wrote that “You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.” In our world, Eliezer Yudkowsky spent five years appearing to be writing a story, and just recently the wool has fallen from my eyes.

Footnote #1 — A reader pointed out I did not cite this. I realize that I did not know who proposed this. Some quick googling doesn’t reveal this either. It may be discussed in this Armstrong, Sandberg, Bostrom paper, but I have not bought it. Bostrom’s name is all over the stuff I’ve read, so he probably knows. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Update — March 2nd, 5pm

The deadline is 8 hours away, and Yudkowsky is overwhelmed by the response and requesting help. I have decided to post this now, because I am reasonably confident of the solution, so I am making an advanced prediction. I am less confident of the exact solution, but I do believe that it will involve Aumann’s agreement theorem. My answer certainly will.

I suspect the internet will get a viable solution. However, will the solution make a good story? I’m not sure.

Update 9:30pm (< 5 hours left). I posted my solution to hours ago. I have no idea how to link to it (since I can’t find it) and I left out a key step hours in any case (oops). But I have posted my actual solution (heavily abbreviated) on reddit in case someone else wants to post it, and as a prediction of the correct answer. I may revise this as errors are noted and I correct them (and add more links), but will put new information in a new post.

Followup post March 3rd — I was wrong.

Written by taogaming

March 2, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Jeremy Silman plays Nations

I played my 6th game of Nations last night, and in the ensuing discussion I wound up thinking about Jeremy Silman. Back when I played Chess (semi-exclusively), his book “How to Reassess your Chess” did very well, mainly because it rhymed. But also because he presented things clearly to amateur players. The most interesting idea was on exploiting imbalances.

Nations is a game of exploiting imbalances.

You can have lots of coal, or coins, or wheat. You can have little. You can have great production, or not. Military: Big or Small? Earn VP during the game or via buildings/wonders? Etc. You can’t beat everyone everywhere; you must choose your imbalances.

If you have great coins, that means you can afford the high-ticket items, so you can afford to take a few turns to get architects (for example) and pay a premium for better stuff. Or you can buy the cheap stuff, then snag a few expensive things later on. If you are coin-poor, you need to get the most important thing. If you have lots of coal, you can move people around to optimal places. You can also presumably afford to move to a high military for a turn, planning on abandoning it if necessary. (A coal poor person would be forced to keep it, since he couldn’t afford to move the workers around). A small military person may have to recognize that and boost stability (or preemptively buy a war) to avoid losing to much.

There are lots of specifics (and I’m vaguely tempted to write a few thousand words about them, but perhaps later). But the basic ideas are simple, and apply to many games:

  1. Be Flexible. If you put yourself in a position where you need to grab some card, you can be screwed.
  2. If you are going to be losing one type of fight (and you are), then make sure that isn’t a critical fight for you. If you are going to lose a war, by god, lose it. No point fighting for 6 grain on a crappy building if you need 7. Take the hit and boost your books and VP to compensate.
  3. If everyone is fighting for resource X, then there is some resource Y they are ignoring. If you corner the market in it, they’ll all fell the pinch.
  4. Having a ton of resources and few gained VP by the middle game is often just fine.


Written by taogaming

March 25, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Strategy, Thoughts about Thinking

Tagged with ,

Sometimes not even Money …

Continuing on a tangent from actions versus words, sometimes you can’t even trust actions … if the resource in question varies dramatically from time to time. They obvious example is high stakes no-limit poker. If you (and your opponent) each have a million dollars in chips, then a $100 call pre-flop basically means your opponent has two cards (because of implied odds) But if your opponent calls $10 when you each have $20, that’s a good hand (or bad opponent).

Cylons won’t do anything out of the ordinary for small stakes. But again, that’s because this turn may be mild influence on a skill check and waiting gives the chance to make a crushing decision. Uneven resources. But in Bang! (to continue the discussion), one turn is (usually) one shot. Resources don’t vary, so you can trust actions.

Written by taogaming

August 16, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Money Talks, BS walks

A few weeks ago Ta-Nehisi Coates had a guest blogger (Ayelet Waldman) talking about her experiences at a summer conference of the Army War College’s National Security seminar. This was an interesting read (and Ta-Nehisi’s blog is wide ranging, well written, and erudite). I remember hearing about (not playing) the National Security Games at Origins, and I started mentally thinking — if the National Security Seminar asked me to offer them a game to teach national security, what game would I offer?

Not a war game. I’d never be so brash as to assume that I could teach them about tactics, logistics, operations, strategy, fog of war. And my target audience probably doesn’t need this, but I think a broad swath of America (some of whom would be at the Army War College) could use a (good game of) Bang!

In Bang! (he wrote, on the off chance that non-gamers read this), you have a hand of cards, the most basic are “Bang!” and “Missed.” You can shoot whoever is in range (sitting next to you at the table if you have a pistol, longer range if you have a rifle. Some cards give you stuff, beer let’s you heal (this is a spaghetti western, after all).

The real trick of the game is you have a role. There’s the Sheriff. He wins if the outlaws and renegade are dead. The deputies win if the sheriff does. The outlaws win if the sheriff dies, and the renegade wins if he’s the last man standing (which means that he has to kill the sheriff last. The renegade is in a tough spot).

Everybody knows who the Sheriff is, but the other roles are hidden (revealed on death).

And here’s the thing — Accusations fly “Oh, he’s so-and-so.”  “He could be the renegade.” “I’m just shooting him to keep him honest.” And people pay attention to this crap. Most of the time it’s completely easy to tell someone’s motivations (with the exception of the renegade), but the information you gain from someone’s words (as compared to their action) is — nothing.

Words don’t win (or lose) the game. Actions do. A good player makes actions count. A clever player will also try to confuse things (to his benefit) with whatever words he deems most helpful, but actions have a cost (you 0nly get one “Bang!” card a turn, you only draw so many cards). Sure, sometimes a player mis-plays, but there you go. (Bang isn’t, of course, the best game to teach words versus actions. BSG is excellent, because actions are less easily interpreted. Poker is good. You can win with table presence, but great players can play without it. But poker’s too well known to make a good teaching game).

But even though there are better games for teaching this, Bang’s an excellent example, because it roughly simulates the US position at the beginning of every recent war. We’re the sheriff. Everyone knows who we are.  We have initiative (first turn) and resources. And we’re sitting a table with 4-6 others claiming to be our friends, most of whom want us dead. Some of them are in a position to do something about it, some aren’t. Your turn.

In my last game of Bang I knew everyone’s role after the first turn. By my first turn, I explained things to the Sheriff (I was deputy). But I had one huge advantage that a real world commander doesn’t. I know the exact breakdown of roles (so many deputies, so many outlaws, one renegade). The “US Army War College” version of Bang would have one sheriff (picked randomly) and then a deck of cards that includes deputies, outlaws and renegades (plural). In the real world, you don’t know exactly how many enemies you have.

(That’s the main flaw of BSG as well, two cylons in a 5 player game. If it could be 2 or maybe sometimes 3, imagine the tension when two are revealed. Of course, it would be a bitch to balance).

Anyway, once you grok Bang, then the basics of BSG, Shadow Hunters and other games become easy — follow the money, ignore the chatter. Sure, it may be helpful, but it may be intended to deceive, and until you’ve seen someone expend resources, you’ve no idea which team they are on.

Actually, I suspect most soldier’s know this lesson pretty well. I really just want to get this across to voters, who seem to be taken in regularly (about once per election).

Written by taogaming

August 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm