On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.


Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only


When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

I play board games with a local reviewer.  We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.

Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster.  You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps.  Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous.  Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.


My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices.  Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.

That’s not fun.

But I loved it!  Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans).  And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).

warlock sticker.jpg
A warlock character from Ferretcraft.  See what I mean about her art?

Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.

I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play.  Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War.  But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.

For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers.  If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them.  Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them.  There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card.  The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.

And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure.  Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold.  If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero.  But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either.  Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.

With a few changes, though, this could be really fun.  A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need.  The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them.  And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead.  Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.

(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence.  I think either design has interesting gameplay implications.  If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers.  Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents.  We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)

With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.

But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about.  Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.

Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games.  Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others.  My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.

My siblings, with a game they’d made.

And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful.  Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement.  More than just games are flawed, after all.  I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.

Because it is daunting.  Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read.  Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence).  Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds.  But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.

Contents of a package we recently sent to someone in prison.

Header image for post: Tinkering studio at the Exploratorium.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.


When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?


A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On theft and bullying.

On theft and bullying.

We aren’t born equal.

We never have been, not humans or any other animals.  Among species that birth in litters, the baby that leaves the womb largest has a lifelong advantage.  In the modern world, where a baby happens to be born dictates its future prospects to a huge degree.  Maybe it’ll be born in the United States, instantly reaping the benefits of citizenship.  Or maybe it’ll be born into a war-torn nation, amidst strife caused by climate change… which was itself caused by the creation of wealth and prosperity for all those U.S. babies.

And we use our initial advantages to further tilt the scales.  The largest mammal in a litter pushes the others aside and takes the most milk.  The rich get richer.

The same principal holds true in astrophysics.  The more dense a black hole, the better it will be at grabbing additional matter.  Densely-arrayed galaxies will keep their neighbors longest: because empty space expands, the rate at which stars drift away from each other depends upon their initial separation.  The farther away you are, the faster you will recede.  The lonely become lonelier.

But we are blessed.  Through the vagaries of evolution, humans stumbled into complex language.  We can sit and contemplate the world; we can consciously strive to be better than nature.

We can read Calvin and Hobbes and think, “Hey, that’s not fair!”

calvin 9 - 11.png

It is perfectly natural for Moe to get the truck.  He is bigger, after all.  He is stronger.  In the world’s initial inequalities of distribution, physical prowess determined who would reap plenty and who would starve.  After all, not all territories are equivalently bountiful for hunters or gatherers.  Now we have sheets of paper that ostensibly carve up the world amongst us, but in past eras raw violence would’ve staked claims.  Human mythology brims with accounts of battle to gain access to the best resources… and we humans still slaughter each other whenever insufficient strength seems to back the legitimacy of those papers.

When the threat of contract-enforcing state violence in Syria waned, local murder began.  And we lack an international state threatening violence against individual nations – inspired partly by the desire for resources, George W. Bush initiated a campaign of murder against Iraq.

Except when we’ve banded together to suppress individual violence (the state as Voltron), the strong take from the weak.

At least we know it’s wrong.

We’ve allowed other forms of bullying and theft to slip by.  After all, differing physical prowess is only one of the many ways in which we are born unequal.  If it is wrong for the strongest individual to steal from others, is it also wrong for the most clever to do the same?

weaponsofmathdestructionFrom Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction:

But the real problem came from a nasty feeling I started to have in my stomach.  I had grown accustomed to playing in these oceans of currency, bonds, and equities, the trillions of dollars flowing through international markets.  But unlike the numbers in my academic models, the figures in my models at the hedge fund stood for something.  They were people’s retirement funds and mortgages.  In retrospect, this seems blindingly obvious.  And of course, I knew it all along, but I hadn’t truly appreciated the nature of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that we pried loose with our mathematical tools.  It wasn’t found money, like nuggets from a mine or coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.  This wealth was coming out of people’s pockets.  For hedge funds, the smuggest of the players on Wall Street, this was “dumb money.”

the math was directed against the consumer as a smoke screen.  Its purpose was only to optimize short-term profits for the sellers.  And those sellers trusted that they’d manage to unload the securities before they exploded.  Smart people would win.  And dumber people, the providers of dumb money, would wind up holding billions (or trillions) of unpayable IOUs. … Very few people had the expertise and the information required to know what was actually going on statistically, and most of the people who did lacked the integrity to speak up.

O’Neil was right to feel queasy – after all, she had become Moe.  All the high-frequency traders – who are lauded as brilliant despite often doing no more than intercepting others’ orders, buying desired products a millisecond before anyone else can, and re-selling them at a profit – are simply thieves.  Sometimes they are stealing because they are more clever.  Other times, they are stealing because their pre-existing wealth allows them to buy access to lower-latency computer servers than anyone else.

In any case, Calvin would disapprove.

calvin 9 - 20.png

Thankfully, O’Neil quit stealing (although she doesn’t mention returning her prior spoils).  After all, that is part of our blessing – we cannot change the past, but…

… and here it’s worth mentioning that Ludwig Wittgenstein was clearly incorrect when he wrote that “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.  If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative.”  Most physicists believe in free will and the mutability of the future, despite also knowing that, according to the laws of physics, their beliefs should be false…

… we can always fix the future.

(As a special treat – here is one of the most beautiful comic strips about opening your eyes to change.)


On free-market capitalism, political spending, and Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money.’

On free-market capitalism, political spending, and Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money.’

So-called libertarian economic philosophy — which has been having a larger and larger influence on mainstream politics over the past few decades — doesn’t make sense.  Which is too bad.  I like the basic ideas behind capitalism.

And I love liberty.

But there are major logical inconsistencies in the popular conception of free market capitalism.

Economist Robert Reich recently published Saving Capitalism to address some of these misconceptions.  In the first few pages of his book, he dismisses the distinction between free markets and government intervention:

Reich_SavingCapitalism_Book_v3The question typically left to debate is how much intervention is warranted.  Conservatives want a smaller government and less intervention; liberals want a larger and more activist government.  This has become the interminable debate, the bone of contention that splits left from right in America and in much of the rest of the capitalist world.

But the prevailing view, as well as the debate it has spawned, is utterly false.  There can be no “free market” without government.  The “free market” does not exist in the wilds beyond the reach of civilization.  Competition in the wild is a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win.  Civilization, by contrast, is defined by rules; rules create markets, and governments generate the rules.

A market — any market — requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game.  In most modern democracies, such rules emanate from legislatures, administrative agencies, and courts.  Government doesn’t “intrude” on the “free market.”  It creates the market.

Some would have you believe that, in a world of free-market capitalism, producers would extract oil from the ground however they want, process it however they want, sell it to whomever they want, keep the entirety of their spoils, then spend that money however they want.

This is, sadly, not what would happen in a world free of government intervention.

Instead, roving warlords would conquer the oil reserves.  Or the refinery.  There would be no money, so oil would have to be bartered for other goods.  But someone bringing huge quantities of oil to the market would likely be murdered, their possessions stolen.  It would be difficult to maintain inequality as extreme as we have in the contemporary United States, because the wealthy would pay huge sums to employ bodyguards.  Greater concentrations of wealth would lure greater extremes of violence.

But this is not the world that self-proclaimed libertarians envision.  Instead they support rules that favor the already wealthy; they claim that the peculiar set of rules they favor is free-market capitalism.  It is not.

This contrast is lucidly described in a passage from Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.  He focuses on the housing rental market, but his analysis applies equally well to many realms of our economy:

unnamed (3)Those who profit from the current situation — and those indifferent to it — will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself.  They don’t really mean that.  Exploitation within the housing market relies on government support.  It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies.  Just as the police and the prison have worked to triage the ill effects of rising joblessness in the inner city (like social unrest or the growth of the underground economy), civil courts, sheriff deputies, and homeless shelters manage the fallout of rising housing costs among the urban poor and the privatization of the low-income housing market.

Without government intervention, the plight of the urban poor would not be nearly so miserable as it is today.  Landlords could not stake claims to huge numbers of properties throughout a city, because the impoverished would simply claim a place to live and retaliate with violence if a landlord asked them to leave.

This is the basic reason why I support progressive income taxes (and progressive wealth taxes, too).  I think that people should fund government to the extent that their life would become worse without it.  The poor are kept poor by our existing rules.  They cannot take the things they need.  I think they should pay a negative tax, i.e. receive an income supplement.  The wealthier someone is, the more likely that person would be murdered and robbed without the protections of government.  I think it is eminently reasonable for the wealthy to pay a higher percentage to maintain our current order.

9780385535595Of course, several extremely wealthy people do not agree with me.  As Jane Mayer documents in Dark Money, these individuals have used their wealth to promulgate a philosophy very different from my own.  Everybody knows that politicians can be bought — and cheaply, too, with hundred thousand dollar campaign contributions often resulting in million dollar lawsuits being dropped.  Well, academics can be bought, too.  University professors expend so much effort scrabbling for grants that it was unsurprising to learn how a few targeted donations led to steadfast ideological purity throughout the recipients’ careers.

These wealthy individuals (the Koch brothers, among others) self-describe as free market capitalists.  They claim to favor extremely limited governance, but their actions bely these claims.  In Mayer’s words,

Singer [who ran a hedge fund that bought “distressed debt in economically failing countries at a discount” then took “aggressive legal action to force the strapped nations, which had expected their loans to be forgiven, to instead pay him back at a profit”] described himself as a Goldwater free-enterprise conservative, and he contributed generously to promoting free-market ideology, but at the same time his firm reportedly sought unusual government help in squeezing several desperately impoverished governments, a contradiction that applied to many participants in the Koch donor network.

The wealthy political donors arguing for less government intervention in the economy are precisely those people who have benefited most from government intervention.  They might argue that their position is internally consistent because they feel that the sole function of a just government is the protection of property rights.

But this is nonsense.  All property carries a history of violence — government protection of “property rights” simply chooses an arbitrary cut-off date and legitimizes all violence that occurred on or before that date, while threatening violent reprisal against those who do not respect ownership claims from after that date.

Furthermore, the environmental regulations that Charles Koch denounces are property rights.  If you own a farm and somebody comes with a gun and tells you, “Get out, it’s mine now,” it’s pretty clear that the government has not protected your property rights.  But this isn’t so different from someone coming and setting fire to your farm — you used to have it, now you don’t.  It isn’t so different from someone starting a huge fire on their own property and letting the flames spread to yours.

And it isn’t so different from someone pumping out toxic sludge just upstream of your farm.  Your land was useful — it could grow food fit for human consumption.  If someone dumps a bunch of mercury upstream, now it can’t.  Most of the value of your property is gone, just as if someone had come and set fire to it.

If a corporation buys the land adjacent to your home and puts in a concentrated animal feeding operation, again, much of the value of your property will vanish.  It’s hard to breathe near those things, and most homeowners like to breathe.

Indeed, if you run a company that digs up coal or oil for people to burn, you should expect the government to tax your industry if you care about property rights.  Because your industry is wrecking property all over the globe.  At minimum, you should expect to compensate others for the losses you’re causing — that’s if a government protecting property rights would even allow you to churn out all that toxic waste.

But not everyone agrees.  In Mayer’s words,

Jane_mayer_2008The problem for this group [of oil & coal profiteers] was that by 2008 the arithmetic of climate change presented an almost unimaginable challenge.  If the world were to stay within the range of carbon emissions that scientists deemed reasonable in order for atmospheric temperatures to remain tolerable through the mid-century, 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves would have to stay unused in the ground.  In other words, scientists estimated that the fossil fuel industry owned roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal than the planet could safely burn.  If the government interfered with the “free market” in order to protect the planet, the potential losses for these companies were catastrophic.  If, however, the carbon from these reserves were burned wantonly without the government applying any brakes, scientists predicted an intolerable rise in atmospheric temperatures, triggering potentially irreversible global damage to life on earth.

And, the solution?  Well, the real free market solution is simply to tax negative externalities so that harmful industries can make the correct cost benefit calculations.  If producers reap all the benefits but costs are spread over the entire population, they’ll make too much of a thing.

Indeed, this is a commonly-cited rationale for capitalism: back when many people’s wealth was their livestock, partitioned land holdings was seen as a cure for the tragedy of the commons.  A major cost of raising animals is feeding them, and without private land holdings everyone has an incentive to overgraze.

So, sure, I guess there’s another answer.  We could carve up the atmosphere, trap air in discrete boxes, try to stop all diffusion between them… and then allow the Koch brothers to pump out as much carbon dioxide as they want into their own home’s air.  Presumably they would make different choices, no government regulation required.  Or die — most laboratories gas dissection-bound mice with carbon dioxide.

But these solutions would make it slightly more difficult for our country’s wealthy to continue accumulating mind-boggling quantities of money.  So they’ve chosen a different plan: buy a bunch of academics to churn out philosophical nonsense nearly as toxic as the effluents from their industrial processes.  It’s depressing that this was so successful.

But let’s face it.  Philosophy is dull.  Economics is hard.  When enough people with fancy credentials trumpet nonsense loudly enough, it seems, people will believe.

In Mayer’s words,

When these donors began their quest to remake America along the lines of their beliefs, their ideas were, if anything, considered marginal.  They challenged the widely accepted post-World War II consensus that an activist government was a force for public good.  Instead they argued for “limited government,” drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry, particularly in the environmental arena.  They said they were driven by principle, but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.

On time travel movies, particularly Timecrimes.

TImecrimesTimecrimes is the best time travel movie I’ve ever seen.

Which seems like pretty high praise.  There are lots of time travel movies out there: this isn’t a category like “best cowboy movie where the shootouts are replaced by drug trips” (Renegade) or “best cowboy movie where the shootouts are replaced by ramen noodles” (Tampopo) or “best cowboy movie that’s actually a t.v. show and set in outer space” (Cowboy Bebop  – although if you want to add the stipulation “and isn’t a cartoon” then my answer would be Firefly).

“Time travel movies” is a category broad enough that it probably takes more thought coming up with the answer than was put into delineating the category, as opposed to all the above.  And there are plenty of reasonable entries: Donnie Darko, Terminator 2, Primer, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day.  But I think Timecrimes is best.

You should watch it, if you haven’t.  If you like time travel movies.  Maybe even if you don’t, or haven’t yet.  Because, who knows, maybe you’ll still appreciate seeing the best.

And you should watch it, if you haven’t, before you read this essay.  Because you might be one of those people who likes to be surprised by things, or likes to experience a plot with your mind untarnished by expectation, and I can’t very well explain what’s so great about it without giving a lot of that away.

Here, look, just to be extra kind, I’ll do some more dithering-style typing.  So that your eyes don’t accidentally flit down and spoil things for you.

After borrowing the movie from the library, I wound up quite worried that it would be terrible.  Because often movie previews are for things that are vaguely similar to what you’re watching, right?  Like, “if you liked this enough to rent / buy / borrow it, maybe you’ll want to see these other things, too.”  And one of the previews was for (I assume I’ll have the names wrong for these, because I am actually writing this essay about four years after last watching Timecrimes – it’s that good!  Sticks with you, man) a movie called like “Bus!” or something, about sorority women who couldn’t step off this bus or else they’d be attacked and killed, and one called “Quill!“, about a deadly porcupine?  Something like that.

So I felt worried.

And then the movie started, and it was terrible.  Like, it felt unwatchably bad.  But I switched the audio from the English dubbing (why would that be the default?) into the original Spanish and it was much better.

Okay, that’s plenty of dithering.  If you’ve read this far and still haven’t watched the film, you deserve to have it ruined for you.

Timecrimes is great because it has this really serious message about information sets, and it conveys it in an interesting way, in the form of a puzzle that the protagonist has to solve.

And there are some objections you might raise, as far as why you might think that the virtues described in the above sentence are insufficient to redeem the film.  At least, K had these objections.  So maybe you would have them to?  I don’t know what kind of movies you like.

• Why did the innocent woman have to die?

This was what upset K most.  But the thing is, someone had to die.  Because the protagonist realized that the time machine was horrible, so there had to be extremely high stakes in order to get him to go into the machine again.  This aspect lends a degree of nobility to his acts – the only reason he would have used the machine again would be to save his wife.

• Why did he mimic all those horrible acts at first?

Right, so, he chased and stabbed his past self after first going back in time.  But only because he thought he had to.  The time machine technician had convinced him that if anything happened differently on this trip through the time line, horrible consequences could occur.  Who knows, maybe incongruity / destruction of the universe type consequences.  So he was worried that he would disrupt things and tried his best to ensure that everything happened exactly the way he remembered it.

It was only on his second trip back through time that he tried to change things.  Because at that point his wife had been killed.  So, in order to save her, he specifically tried to alter the past.

For me, the movie progresses through three phases, all after he finds the time machine.  In the first, he is afraid of changing anything and is trying to act in ways that reproduce his memories of the past.  In the second, he is afraid that he won’t change things and that will mean his wife will die.  And then, in the third phase, after he wakes up in the car, he has realize that he can’t change anything.  He tried to, he failed, everything matched his previous memories perfectly.  And it would make sense, right?  If there were time travel, then everything should line up, because the inside of his brain is already in a certain state – he has these memories of what for him is the past, and what for other characters is the future – and so those thing must happen to justify the current state of his own mind.

So then the puzzle for him to solve is, How can I be wrong?  He knows that his wife will die.  He watched it happen.  He has a memory of it.  So how can he change things so that falling off the roof does not actually kill his wife?

Personally, I hoped he’d use his third trip through that stretch of time to put a mattress on the ground where his wife was going to fall.  But I guess that’s because I’m a softy.  I don’t like tragedy in art.  Which is kind of crumby, because obviously good art is often tragedy.

But the end-of-movie haircut seemed very clever.  He knew his wife died because he saw a woman with his wife’s haircut fall to her death.  But by giving that haircut to the innocent victim, he makes his own memory incorrect, and his wife is saved.

And, really, that’s all.

But isn’t that enough?  Isn’t doing one beautiful thing, presenting one thing in an interesting way, enough to make a great movie?

Also, in case you were interested, the director does interesting things with information sets in the other film I’ve seen of his, Extraterrestrial.  Like, information sets are the things you care about in game theory.  Why, for instance, a car loses most of its value as soon as you buy it and drive it off the lot.  Now you are privy to secret knowledge about how well it works, and a buyer has to make a guess in the dark.

And, anyway, the fact that he’s making these movies seems cool to me – there are directors out there who seem to be fascinated by outlaws, or motherhood, or precipitous camera angles, or by jacket sleeves that don’t come as far down the wearer’s arms as most people think they ought to.  Like, all sorts of things a director might obsess over.  So isn’t it nice that there is also somebody obsessed with information sets?

On chimpanzees and Nash equilibria.

Photo credit: Christopher Flynn Martin, study lead author.
Photo credit: Christopher Flynn Martin, study lead author.

This is a pretty cool study, I think.  Amongst other things, the authors compared the performance of pairs of chimpanzees in a zero-sum game to the performance of human pairs.  And they noticed that pairs of chimpanzees typically perform much closer to the Nash equilibria than do human pairs.

I do wish the authors had done slightly more, though.  With their set-up, they were testing pairs who could not communicate with one another, and after each game the winner received some reward in sight of the loser.  So it seems as though the set-up could be extended to testing human / chimpanzee pairs.  The same prizes, food pellets or whatever, could be given to each, with the understanding that the human can exchange their reward for money after the entire series of games.

Because the authors stress that chimpanzees performed better than humans – “better” here meaning “closer to Nash equilibrium.”  As in, the pair performed close to what you’d expect for perfect rational actors.

But there is another clear sense of “better,” for individuals.  If you were playing, and you noticed your partner deviating from Nash equilibrium, you ought to deviate even farther.  A Nash equilibrium is the probabilistic set of strategies that eliminates any incentive for your partner to change their plan, while maximizing your expected rewards.  But the Nash equilibrium only maximizes your rewards against a perfect opponent: if your opponent is making mistakes, then you could win more often by using a strategy other than the one you’d pick at Nash equilibrium.

As an example, you could consider the “symmetric matching” game from the paper.  Nash equilibrium is for both players to have P=0.5 for each choice.  But if one player, the matcher, say, is choosing “left” with 60% probability, and “right” with 40%, then the opponent has an incentive to deviate from P=0.5 as well.  In this case, the highest possible payoff would be to start choosing “right” all the time, but for a repeated game that might be counterproductive: the matcher would notice and compensate for his or her original error.  But by choosing “right” with any probability greater than 50%, the mismatcher is still  capitalizing on the opponent’s error and will win a greater than expected share of the prizes.

This can be visualized by modifying graphs like those shown in Figure 2 of the paper.  Specifically, horizontal and vertical lines passing through the Nash equilibrium could be added, dividing the graph into four quadrants.  Points on the lines would represent  cases where one player had deviated from Nash equilibrium but the other did not take advantage of that deviation.  In top right and bottom left quadrants, the deviations of each player aligns to benefit the “matcher,” and the other quadrants represent outcomes benefiting the “mismatcher.”

Which is a lot of pre-amble to get to my point.  Sorry about that.  But my question is, are chimpanzees actually better at these sorts of games?  As in, if you paired a human with a chimpanzee, given that humans routinely deviate from Nash equilibrium in the asymetric type of game, would the final outcome typically favor the chimpanzee?  That’s something that seems to be implied by the paper, but they didn’t test it.  And it seems like they could.