Come Out to Play for Fun – On “Finite and Infinite Games”

Context: This post is inspired by the book Finite and Infinite Games. As the subtitle reads, this book offers “a vision of life as play and possibility.” Perspective-changing. At time of writing, I have finished ~1/3 of the book.

Finite games play within boundaries.
Infinite games play with boundaries.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

There Are Two Kinds of Games

Namely: finite games and infinite games. See quote above for what I think is the most important takeaway to remember on what sets the two apart.

But first, let’s talk about what all games have in common: whoever plays, plays freely (by free choice):

In one respect, but only one, an infinite game is identical to a finite game: if they play they play freely; if they must play, they cannot play.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

Other than this similarity, finite and infinite games differ drastically. I summarize below the key takeaways for different types of readers:

A/ For efficiency-maximizing readers => here are your bullet points

P.S._version_fun: I am aware that “efficiency-maximizing” is sometimes used as an euphemism for “I don’t have time” and / or “I don’t care” and / or “I am too important for details”. Just joking. 🙂

How to read: trait_of_finite_games vs. trait_of_infinite_games (I give myself credit for clearly labeling my legend):

  • Goal: to win vs. to continue playing;
  • Is temporally bounded: yes (clear start and end) vs. no (unclear start and no end)
  • Is spatially bounded: yes (within a marked area) vs. no
  • Is numerically bounded: yes (fixed number of players, so that one could emerge as the clear winner and end the game) vs. no (players walk on and off the field as they wish)
  • Rules of the game: contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, and do not change throughout the play vs. contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing and are dynamic

B/ For word-lovers and creatives => here is your metaphor

And a bonus picture for the metaphor:

P.S._version_creepy: 23. This number is why I chose the picture above. The 23 enigma is, depending on your perspective, creepy and/or mysterious and/or inexplicable and/or irrational and/or nonsense and/or [insert adjective(s) of your choice].

I bet after you read up on “23” and its stories, you will start to see the number everywhere. Just like how I was able to immediately spot the 23 in this picture when I was searching for theatre-related pics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. For those who want to go down the rabbit hole of more things that will surprise your brain (disclaimer: surprise could mean “mess up seriously” for some people) – check out the book Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati. My biggest takeaway from the book is: don’t read the book if you want to remain sane. You’ve been warned. This is the one time I am trying (and I think I am actually) being nice.

The metaphor itself (finally emerges after a super-long ad above which does not generate any additional income for me): finite games = theatre, infinite games = drama:

Finite games mirror theatre in –

  • Have a clear ending – finite games end when a clear winner emerges
  • Have scripted roles – all players in a finite game play the role that (they think) will help them win

Infinite games mirror drama in –

  • Avoid predictable outcomes – a game is an infinite game precisely because the outcome is not known
  • No scripted roles – players in an infinite game constantly change to continue the game playing with no ending, and to continue the surprise

Insert-rant: And I totally love I also used bullet points in this section. It is as plain as day that I am an efficiency-maximizing writer. I have deliberately chosen the color red to emphasize how unimportant this rant is. Oh, I meant the color red *and* the italics.

Some addendums on acting: in finite games, “self-veiling” is inevitable, as in all players act according to a scripted role (that they have assigned themselves, or think they ought to be playing). I find this part from the book to be very thoughtful:

What makes this an issue is not the morality of masking ourselves. It is rather that self-veiling is a contradictory act – a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten. I may have used the veil so successfully that I have made my performance believable to myself. I may have convinced myself I am Ophelia. But credibility will never suffice to undo the contradictoriness of self-veiling.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

This reminds me of this quote of Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock TV series: “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.”

Image result for irene adler self portrait"

Why so serious? (And how to be playful?)

Seriousness is too boring to the playful human condition.

Michael Bassey Johnson

Here is some serious chain-of-thinking delivered in playful tones:

Seriousness is too boring yet all too common, because boredom is the default tone of life, which may not be a bad thing if you believe the existence of “boredom” is what makes the “NOT-boredom” possible, similar to how Taoism tells us that concepts exist in opposites just as brightness cannot exist without darkness, just as the “is” defines the “is not” and vice versa.

I appreciate you moving on to read this line, as the above paragraph has not scared you off. 🙂 Smiley emoji here because: why so serious?

And seriously: why are we so serious?

And the serious answer: “Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence.

Think about it, seriousness always implies there is a script, which implies there are scripted roles. We are more serious than usual when we interact with a uniformed policeman or doctor, compared with interacting them in their off-uniform casual clothes.

In contrast: “We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out – when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it.”

As you may have guessed, being serious is the tone of finite games, while being playful is the game that the infinites play. Importantly, to be playful should not be confused with to be “trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen”. To be playful means acknowledging that any consequence could happen, and welcoming this unbounded realm of possibilities:

To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

Linking back to the common purpose of all finite games – play to win. Yet how can you be truly playing playfully, if you take winning seriously? Thus, being playful is the luxury reserved for the infinite game players – who play playfully with the goal to continue playing.

And I must conclude this section with a playful picture:

Image result for to be playful and serious at the same time"

Pick your poison: Power or Strength?

Of course I am obliged to be playful and “not-so-serious” by this point. So the playful answer is: why not both? Get a personal trainer if you want some help with fitness.

Back to the serious topic: Finite games play for power. Infinite games play for strength.

Power is embedded in the emergence of a winner at the end of the game. Power is passive, it is “never one’s own,” as it requires the voluntary acceptance of the power by others.

Strength is paradoxical. “I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Strength is mocking power in the face and having no thoughts of it whatsoever.

Power concentrates only in a small hand of victors – because winning is not something you could opt into, but something that is decided for you according to the rules of the game.

Strength benefits potentially anyone – because strength is something we could all choose to have, something we decide for ourselves according to the will of our mind.

So my friends – decide how you want to play. Pick your script – or no script. Recite seriously or explore playfully. Fight for your power or defend your strength.

The night is getting dark…

…and time to come out to play.

How Strangers Confused Spies and Diplomats (Reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell)

Malcolm Gladwell is back in town with a new book this month: Talking to Strangers. Great read – insightful & crisp like Gladwell’s earlier works. Never dry, sometimes actionable, frequently inspiring. Full of specific stories & research, a walking example of Gladwell’s belief: “Most interesting people talk about things with a great deal of specificity.

For podcast lovers: Oprah Winfrey interviewed Gladwell about this book in the latest episode of Super Soul Sunday. A nice intro into the book.

Related image

From Neighbors to Strangers: Change in Interactions

Setting up the context in the opening chapter, Malcolm talks about how we interact with others have changed:

Throughout the majority of human history, encounters – hostile or otherwise – were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.

Our ancestors mostly interacted with “neighbors”, as in people who lived in close proximity and had a common base for communication – including a common language & common cultural norms. This “common ground” reduced the cost of communication, making it very unlikely that things were “lost in translation” – both literally & metaphorically.

In contrast:

“Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own…struggling to understand each other.”

Today, we live in an Era of Strangers – people whose beliefs, upbringings & habits that are drastically different from our own. Yet, we could be terrible at times in understanding these differences. As Malcolm put it, the book “Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”

Let’s dig in to look at key takeaways from the book.

Two Puzzles We Got from Spies & Diplomats

Fidel Castro released a documentary on Cuban national television titled The CIA’s War Against Cuba:

“Cuban intelligence, it turned out, had filmed and recorded everything the CIA had been doing in their country for at least ten years – as if they were creating a reality show…On the screen, identified by name, were CIA officers supposedly under deep cover…The most sophisticated intelligence service in the world had been played for a fool.”

The Cuban government had, in effect, converted almost all of CIA agents in Cuba into their agents, and fed fake information back to CIA for years. Years!

Malcolm says the CIA’s spectacular failure brought up Puzzle #1: “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face? Why did the CIA – with the world’s top minds trained in espionage – failed to realize their agents lied to them for years?

Similar misjudgments happened on the other side of the world, in Britain. Before World War II broke out:

“(Then UK Prime Minister) Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler’s spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table. He misread Hitler’s intentions.”

Others in Britain saw through Hitler – Winston Churchill was one of the people who “never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug.”

What’s interesting, though, is although Chamberlain spent hours with Hitler in person, Churchill only read about Hitler on paper. “The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew least about him personally.” Here comes Puzzle #2: “How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?

Even trained spies & diplomats could get it all wrong when it comes to strangers – just imagine how complicated this whole thing is:

“We have people struggling with their first impressions of a stranger. We have people struggling when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent.”
* * *
“It’s a mess.”

Talking to strangers is a mess indeed. Below are some tips that may provide some guidance.

“Default to Truth” is A Mental Shortcut that Works Most of the Time, but Trips Us Over at Unexpected Times

Psychologist Tim Levine did an experiment: he asked participants to watch videos of students talking, and try to spot liars among them. The result:

“We’re much better than chance (>>50%) at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we’re much worse than chance (<<50%) at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We go through all those videos, and we guess – ‘true, true, true’ – which means we get most of the truthful interviews right, and most of the liars wrong.”

Malcolm calls this “default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” More importantly, Levine finds “we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away”. In other words, for us to switch off the default-truth mode, we not only require some doubt – we require enough doubt, unshakable doubt, undeniable doubt that it would take an insane person to not change his or her opinion.

Borrowing words from the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” here, we all practice the mental shortcut of “trust until proven a lie” – and this burden of proof has an extremely high threshold. We require evidence to go way, way, way beyond reasonable doubt.

As Malcolm summarizes it:

“That is Levine’s point. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.
* * *
“Just think about how many times you have criticized someone else, in hindsight, for their failure to spot a liar. ‘You should have known. There were all kinds of red flags. You had doubts.’ Levine would say that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. The right question is: were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of belief? If there weren’t, then by defaulting to truth you were only being human…doubts trigger disbelief only when you can’t explain them away.”

Our mental shortcut of “default to truth” is not completely useless – to the contrary, it is an evolutionary toolkit that gives us “efficient communication and social coordination” – at the cost of “an occasional lie”:

Lies are rare…it doesn’t matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting 30 seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth.”

Every day, we make countless decisions about whether or not to trust someone. Our default decision is to opt for the higher-probability scenario, i.e., the other side is telling the truth. In a handful of scenarios, we misjudge and pay for misplaced belief in a liar.

But overall, the total cost we pay is lower than the reverse “default to lie” position – imagine aggressively fact checking & analyzing every word others say, every action others take. It would be impossible to go on with life without becoming schizophrenic!

“Default to truth biases us in favor of the mostly likely interpretation.”

Related reading: A case in point of when “default to truth” goes wrong is the story of the scandal of Theranos – a company that made repeated lies that tripped over some of the world’s best investors & experts, who refused to change their belief in the company despite red flags. I highly recommend the investigative journalism into this: Bad Blood. Page-turner. Amazing story about ethics, business, and the human mind.

Image result for bad blood john carreyrou

What the TV Show “Friends” Got Wrong: Transparency of Feelings is Rarer than We Think

For those who watched Friends, think about this: “it is almost impossible to get confused (when watching the show)…you can probably follow along even if you turn off the sound.” Why is this?

Malcolm cites research done via the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a scoring system for facial expressions:

“FACS analysis tells us that the actors in ‘Friends’ make sure that every emotion their character is supposed to feel in their heart is expressed, perfectly, on their face…the facial displays of the actors are what carry the plot. The actors’ performances in Friends are transparent.”

Malcolm defines “transparency” as “the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

I would define transparency as an idea about consistency: “transparency” = the facial expression someone displays is consistent with what the majority of people would display, if they felt the same feelings. Borrowing the terminology “group-think”, perhaps this could be called “group-face”, i.e., have facial displays that the majority of your group would put on if put in the same shoes.

For example, a person who feels happy and wears a wide grin is being ‘transparent’, whereas the same person would be considered ‘not transparent’ if he frowns instead. Friends is a TV show of high transparency.

Image result for friends TV show

Fans of Friends, beware – the transparency you see in the show is rarely seen in practice!

“Transparency is a myth – an idea we’ve picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero’s ‘jaw dropped with astonishment’ or ‘eyes went wide with surprise.'”

German psychologists Schutzwohl and Reisenzein carried out an experiment – they created a scenario that would surprise participants, who were later asked to describe their facial expressions. Almost all of the participants “were convinced that surprise was written all over their faces.”

But it was not:

“In only 5% of the cases did they (researchers) find wide eyes, shooting eyebrows and dropped jaws. In 17% of the cases they found two of those expressions. In the rest they found some combination of nothing, a little something, and things – such as knitted eyebrows – that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with surprise at all.”

The researchers concluded “participants in all conditions grossly overestimated their surprise expressivity…[t]hey inferred their likely facial expressions to the surprising event from…folk-psychological beliefs about emotion-face associations.”

So the next time you think you have “read” someone from their facial expressions, think again. People are less transparent than you think.

Related TV show: Lie To Me is a US TV series about solving crimes analyzing micro-expressions, i.e., voluntary & involuntary facial expressions which happen so fast that they are not captured by the untrained naked eye. The show’s story-line rests on the premise that certain micro-expressions may be involuntary and universal across cultures, a helpful tool for investigators to decipher the real feelings that criminals are trying to mask. Consider it as an alternative to your regular lie detector. There is academic research into micro-expressions too, though I have not looked at it in-depth.

Image result for lie to me TV show

What Suicide & Criminal Behaviors Have in Common: Both are Coupling Behaviors

In 1962, gas suicide was the #1 form of suicide in England, accounting for over 40% of the cases. By the 1970s, town gas throughout the country was replaced with natural gas that contained no carbon monoxide, that would give you “a mild headache and a crick in your neck” at the worst, but nowhere near lethal.

“So here is the question: once the number-one form of suicide (town gas) in England became a physiological impossibility, did the people who wanted to kill themselves switch to other methods? Or did the people who would have put their heads in ovens now not commit suicide at all?”

If you think people will go for alternative forms of suicide, then you believe in displacement, which “assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop.” If you think suicides will drop once the top form of suicide becomes impossible, then you believe in coupling: “the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” Statistics suggest suicide and crimes are both coupling behaviors tied to specific contexts.

For example, after a suicide barrier was installed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a survey followed up on 515 participants who once attempted to jump from the bridge – only 25 of them (<5%) tried to kill themselves in other ways.

Similarly, crime is also shown to be a coupling behavior. Studies in different cities have converged on the same result: “Crime in every city was concentrated in a tiny number of street segments.” This is referred to as the Law of Crime Concentration. Malcolm thinks the lesson for takeaway is:

“When you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger – because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.”

Don’t Fall Into the “Illusion of Asymmetric Insight”

Let’s play a game of word completion. Suppose I showed you “G L _ _”, which word would you fill it with?

Now suppose I handed you 3 words that a participant has wrote: WINNER, SCORE, GOAL, what could you infer about this participant’s personality? In one response, an interviewee wrote: “It seems this individual has a generally positive outlook toward the things he endeavors…indicate some sort of competitiveness.”

Now let’s flip the game on its head – suppose I asked you to complete the words, and then asked you what these words you completed reveal about your personality. Guess what? The majority of participants in this game refused to”agree with these word-stem completions” as a measure of their own personality.

This is what the psychologist Pronin calls the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight:

The (biased) conviction that we know others better than they know us – and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa) – leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.”

As Malcolm phrases it, it is easy to blame it on the stranger: “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let is be this: Strangers are not easy.

If I could leave you with only one takeaway, then let it be this: strangers are not easy. What is easy to do is to blame the strangers for any meaning lost in translation – without assessing our own biases. Hopefully this book has given all of us some actionable tips on “talking to strangers”. Once again, I highly recommend reading the whole book from cover to cover – I hope you will find it to be a page-turner as I did.

[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

Interviewer
What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

Interviewer
It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

Witch Hunt 2019 Version: On What Grounds Do You Stand?

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution?”

Find this question provoking?

Check out the eye-opening answer of Professor Timur Kuran in an interview with Eric Weinstein on “The Portal” podcast. I don’t think the show notes are exaggerating too much by saying “(t)his could well be the most important economist you’ve never heard of.” This episode is especially relevant given the current political discourse & climate.

Note: For podcast lovers, I highly recommend The Portal – I have found each and every episode thus far to be of consistently high quality. The podcast is thoughtfully named “The Portal”, to refer to different portals (ways) of looking at the world.

The 1st guest on the show was Peter Thiel, who spoke highly of the Mimetic Theory proposed by French philosopher R. Girard. I have written about it in Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game.

Fake Your Ground via “Preference Falsification”

Question: You go to your friend Emma’s birthday party. She greets you at the door with a hug, takes a step back and spins in her green dress with gigantic, yellow polka dots. Emma smiles up at you and asks: “My brother bought this new dress for my birthday! What do you think?” Honestly, you find the dress to be shockingly hideous (or hideously shocking). How do you react?

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Honesty Brutality is the best policy. Say it to Emma’s face that you find this dress to be an utter disgrace, and she should dump it in the bin right now and change before more guests arrive at the party – so as not to embarrass herself.

(B) Be the best lying friend you think you should be. Say it with a forced big smile that you find the dress to be gorgeous.

(C) Bring out your dark human side. You remember Emma told you last Christmas that pair of purple socks with snowman icons were adorable. You wore that to your first date with your crush, and she found it absolutely incredible laughable. It is time for revenge. You tell Emma with the most sincere smile and starry eyes you could put on, and encourage her to wear the dress all the time.

I would wager most people would go for option (B), i.e., what you say is different from what you really prefer. This is what Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, i.e., “misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures“.

Fake Ground Protects You in the Modern “Witch Hunt”

Question: You live in a neighborhood where durian is treated as a sacred food that everyone should love. Durian is everywhere, e.g., durian flavor is the only flavor of ice-cream allowed. However, you secretly find its smell vomiting. One day, a tourist new to town stops you on the street and asks you about what this “durian” thing is, as she has never heard about it before.

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Tell her (in secret) that while everyone else says durian is awesome, you find it disgusting, and she should run away from it.

(B) Exclaim with enthusiasm that durian is the best food out there – just like what all of your community members would say – and recommend her to check out the durian ice-cream shop around the corner.

Before you decide, you weigh your options carefully. If you go with option (A), you are aware of the risks that words get out – if any of your friends know that you whispered slander against durian, they would immediately cut all ties with you. They would unlike all your Instagram pictures, and unfollow all your social media feeds. You risk your date dumping you. You risk your parents signing you up for “durian acceptance” workshops. You risk opening up your mailbox and discovering 10 books on durians, sent from “Durian Anonymous” group.

As Professor Kuran illustrated, a common type of social pressure that leads to “preference falsification” is the presumption of one & only one orthodox preference – and the rejection of the rest as heresy.

Durian is tasty and everyone loves durian. Case closed. You are simply not allowed to have a different preference. By claiming yourself openly as a “hater of durian”, you immediately declare yourself as the “enemy of the people”.

The minute you voice a different preference, you subject yourself to a modern version of the Witch Hunt – and be prepared for “reputational violence” as punishment, if not something more severe. Just like those labelled witches in the Middle Ages, expect yourself to be the outcast in your circle and consider a cold shoulder as the mildest form of sanction you would get.

Preference falsification – applauding the orthodox view in public while rejecting it in private – is a tactic to stay safe in the modern version of witch hunt. A milder tactic is to remain silent – and saves you the pain of the schizophrenic pressure to balance between a fake voice vs. your true self.

Note: There are two concepts related to preference falsification – chilling effect (i.e., self-censoring for fear of backlash) and strategic silence (i.e., purposefully silencing others or information, usually with the intent to control the narrative). I’ve written about these concepts in What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence. In this case, the chilling effect is in sharp contrast to preference falsification – the former keeps silent, the latter shouts out loud though in a “fake” voice.

And speaking of being open-minded to different opinions, I took a stab at what the word “open-mind” means in this article (that features delicious pictures of ice-cream & durian): “Are you open to durian ice-cream” & an Open-Minded look at Open-Mindedness.

The Witch Hunt in the Middle Ages scarred communities – people lived in fear and dialogues were stifled. Likewise, the modern version of Witch Hunt has its negative consequences. When a large percentage of society practices preference falsification, our political system could produce an outcome that “very few people actually want”:

You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind, the system of knowledge production & knowledge development…(the system) of solving problems…that gets corrupted.

Eric Weinstein

When preference falsification is prevalent, you end up with the weird scenario where everyone in the room wears a pink shirt, although the majority actually prefers the blue one. The irony here is everyone thinks they are wearing pink because everyone around them prefers pink. Hence you are stuck in this weird lose-lose “equilibrium” where as if the collective solved for the wrong problem (or opted for the wrong solution) of how to “minimize utility”. We end up with a schizophrenic world where everyone struggles with the conflicts between their private preferences vs. public preferences.

Middle Ground = Underground?

The two extremes, both are playing this game of “you are with us or against us”, reinforcing each other. They are completely agreed on that.
* * *
There is no middle position. And having a middle position, having the media pay attention to people in the middle, would hurt them (the extremes) both.

Timur Kuran

In this “Economy of Deception” littered by falsified preferences, the middle ground – a nuanced and open-minded stance – has to seek shelter underground. As Professor Kuran points out above, the extreme ends on either side of the spectrum do not want to entertain the possibility of a 3rd option, i.e., seeking compromise and resolution.

Eric Weinstein calls this a “black market (in the marketplace) of ideas“, i.e., underground concepts, ideas, fears that “can’t be discussed in a curated market managed by institutions“. Going back to the durian-lover-community example, think of this as forming a secret club that meets discreetly underground every month to discuss your shared detest for durian.

Occasionally, you have seen brave friends who declare their distaste for durian in the open and advocate for plurality-of-fruit-choices. You admire their bravery, and you relate deeply to this quote:

“We are dependent on people of integrity who risked everything, when it was least popular to do it. We could hold these people in reserve, so that when the madness becomes too great, we could turn to them.”

Eric Weinstein

Where We Go From Here

I leave you with this excerpt from the preface in Professor Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference:

(D)espotic government is not the only source of fear the only obstacle to overt and candid discourse. A more basic factor is public opinion. For one thing, despotism is unsustainable without at least the tacit consent of public opinion. For another, public opinion is itself a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves.

To be sure, time and again the courts have ruled that unpopular views, no matter how outrageous, are protected by the law. Yet a person may be free under the law to enunciate despised views without enjoying the same esteem, in the eyes of others, as people with widely accepted views. However strictly enforced, freedom of speech does not insulate people’s reputations from their expressed opinions.

My preoccupation with the darker side of human nature was not without reward. I became more sensitized to the independent streak in the human character, to the spirit that gives on the courage to say ‘no’ when the pressures of the moment demand a ‘yes.’ With a heightened appreciation for the complexity of the human personality, for the tensions we all endure in trying to mediate between our needs for social approval and those for self-assertion, I gained more respect for the nonconformist, the pioneer, the innovator, the dissident, even the misfit. It is my hope that the reader will come to share in this appreciation.

It is also my hope that the reader – you – will come to share in this appreciation. The consistency in aligning one’s public preferences with one’s private ones. The audacity in listening to one’s innermost self and reach peace with the outer world.

May we all have a mindful journey.

What are some good materials you’ve come across on public discourse? I’d love to hear from you – please reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

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What Doesn’t Kill You Kills Again: A Game of Thrones in the War of the Roses

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger Haunts You Again

In a war, you can only be killed once.
But in politics, many times.

Winston Churchill

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” Try singing Kelly Clarkson’s hit song to any of the great lords fighting during the War of the Roses, and you would be shown the door if you are extremely lucky, or you would be shown the chopping block in the average case.

“What doesn’t kill you haunts you again” is more like it for the nobility who fought for power – and their lives – during the infamous war that plagued England in the 15th century.

Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about the War of the Roses – that described me with 100% accuracy a mere 24 hours ago (and still with a 95% accuracy rate now). No prerequisite knowledge of history is required.

Think of the War of Roses as a (Super Messy) Game of Thrones

“Wait a second,” some of you may interject, “What happened during the War of the Roses? Actually, what is the War of the Roses? Oh and did I mention I am a very busy person with very little time for a long, dry & boring history textbook.”

For those time-conscious readers, check out this 10-minute video that gives you all the basic facts on the war. No need to panic when you hear a dozen names & titles – just think of the War of Roses as a super messy Game-of-Thrones. As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones was inspired by the War and Medieval politics!

“The War of Roses” in 10-minutes

The Culprit = The King Puppet Who Could / Would Not Make Decisions?

Imagine a king who could not make decisions.

Moreover, imagine a king who would not make decisions – even if given every right to do so. Such was what king Henry VI of England was like: ” What Henry was not…was firm and decisive. In fact, humility and malleability were his defining characteristics. He preferred, whenever possible, to let others make the decision for him.

How did that go? As you would imagine, well, not very well:

This, right here, was the central problem of the English political system: royal government required Henry VI to make decisions. He was categorically, permanently incapable of doing that.
* * *
Henry’s incapability was a poison that seeped outward from his person into the royal household, and from there, into the royal government and the kingdom as a whole. This was a slower and more subtle poison than the tyrannical rule of a bad king…

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

England had a dormant king. A sleeping king that cannot and would not be awaken. A king that turned his back on his kingdom.

“The reason for this (war) has to do with the nature of the English government. This was monarchy. And the king ruled. It sounds basic but it is worth repeating: the king ruled. (“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I)” The lack of a royal will was the root cause for the chaos that ensued over legitimacy of decisions and struggles over power allocation. The king’s silence – or more like his inability to make speeches of intellect – sent the country down a slippery slope that culminated in decades of instability.

Royal authority was the basic driving force of medieval government.
The structures & institutions of government…didn’t form a bureaucratic machine that could act of its own accord.
* * *
Government simply channeled and enabled royal authority. It took for granted that there would be a royal will at the center of it.

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

Luckily, the Duke of Suffolk stepped in and made decisions on behalf of the king. This was not in itself a bad thing. However, the legitimacy of such decisions was under constant attack, and Suffolk’s actions were seen as ” in and of itself partisan, because he had allies and retainers and people who were connected to him by patronage. Would he pick a side, that was not the king’s impartial justice – it was the political act of a major noble. The result was a series of local conflicts. (“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I )”

War = A Force that Divides or A Propaganda that Unites?

It is common to think of war as a brutal, divisive force – it is the eruption of conflicts that releases its pressure via bloodshed. However, the seemingly contradictory yet deeply logical argument is that war unites otherwise divided parties against a common enemy:

Kings were supposed to make war, and war bounds together the king with his nobles with a common sense of purpose and direction.
* * *
Since war was expensive and had to be paid for, which meant taxation through parliament, this too created a sense of national political community of general investment in the conflict.

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

War is an opportunity for groups that used to oppose one another to find common ground – in their common enemy. Groups that disagree on what to go after could agree on what to fight against. This tactic of diverting attention away from domestic issues internal to a system to foreign problems external to a system is seen throughout history to this day.

Today, the term “diversionary foreign policy” refers to “a war instigated by a country’s leader in order to distract its population from their own domestic strife (Wikipedia)”. Diversionary wars also serve to accentuate the (perceived) importance of a leader, who is seen as the figurehead that unites domestic forces against a foreign enemy. As a consequence, victory out of a diversionary war is effective in solidifying the legitimacy of the leader.

War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.

Carl von Clausewitz

Back to Churchill’s quote at the start on politics kills many times – politics is a never-ending war with no triumph that is constant and with no threat that is fleeting.

The War of Roses is a vivid example of how politics is a Game of Thrones, a House of Cards that each and every one of us plays at a different scale every single day. And let’s play our best hand, hoping that Kelly Clarkson’s song has some truth to it: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger at the end of the day.

Life Is The Ultimate Imitation Game (René Girard reading notes 1)

Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.

Aristotle, Poetics, 4

This article is inspired by “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” by René Girard – Book I: Fundamental Anthropology, Chapter 1: The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion. All Girard quotes below are from this chapter unless otherwise specified.

Imitation is A (The) Portal Onto the Past, Present & Future

Mind-blowing.

If I could only describe René Girard’s model of the world in one word, “mind-blowing” is my pick, and even that may be an understatement.

I first heard about Girard in an interview with Peter Thiel, where he spoke highly of Girard’s Mimetic Theory on the role of imitation:

It’s a portal onto the past, onto human origins, our history.

It’s a portal onto the present and the interpersonal dynamics of psychology.

It’s a portal onto the future in terms of whether or not we’re going to let these mimetic desires run amok and lead us to apocalyptic violence.

Peter Thiel commenting on Girard’s Mimetic Theory, The Portal podcast

Understanding imitation is a portal – perhaps THE portal – to understanding the one big question in the “science of man”:

[T]he precise domain in which the question of man will be asked…is that of the origin and genesis of signifying systems…it is the problem of what is called the process of hominization.

René Girard

Let us dissect the question of hominization from multiple angles below:

The Evolutionary Biologist: Survival is the “Who-Creates-More-Imitations” Game

Let us go back in time and look at the rules of the game that govern the evolution of species.

In a highly entertaining book on evolutionary biology, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve” (with its entertaining feature evident from the entertaining title), Prof. Steve gives a concise summary of key ideas behind gene selection:

Genes are selected to the extent that they propagate themselves in the gene pool. Often, they do this by helping their owners to survive and reproduce, or by helping their owners’ kin to survive and reproduce.

…adaptations are designed to pass on the genes giving rise to them. And human beings, along with all other organisms, are gene machines.

Steve Stewart Williams, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

The highest & sole purpose of existence of a gene is to propagate copies of itself – to create imitations. Interestingly, in the case of humans (& many other species that mate to reproduce), the reproductive process creates genes (children) that are close imitations of either parent, instead of exact replicas. It is an imitation, not a 100% copy, in the truest sense of the word.

More interestingly, at the start of time, cells reproduced without mating and simply replicated an exact copy of itself – 100% original, 0% room for experimentation. However, this copy-and-paste approach – while efficient (saves time of finding a mate) – is detrimental to the propagation of the original gene in the long run. In other words, 100% cloning limits the ability to create more imitations (replicas) as time goes on:

…while clonal reproduction helped bacteria pass on beneficial mutations, it also left some entire colonies at risk when dangers such as bacteria-infecting viruses arose, because the cloned bacteria possessed too many of the same inadequacies in their defense mechanisms. Sexual reproduction changed that in a big way.

…Organisms that reproduced sexually had more genetic losers that their clonal forebears, but they also had a far greater possibility of evolving genetic winners.

Jamie Metzl, “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

Being too predictable in the Survival Game (reproducing via clones that are 100% replicas) makes a species hack-able – what kills one in your species could, in theory, wipe out the entire species. Predictability kills at times. The hack to that is to create imitations – close enough but not entirely the same. The cost of hack is the reproductive process is more time-consuming. Nature is fair with trade-offs.

The Philosopher: Identity is the “Who-Should-I-Imitate” Game

“What is my identity” is a trendy way of phrasing the questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • Who do I see myself becoming?

Identity is not just a static question of who I am at present – identity creates the drive to change, to move dynamically towards an ideal persona we see ourselves becoming. The process of finding our “identity” is the process of finding what type of person we want to imitate. The act of staying true to our identity is the act of not deviation from the imitation game we are playing to mimic the perfect, model persona in our minds.

When we say we “identify with” someone or something, we mean we see the similarities – we see the other side as imitations of ourselves, and we want to imitate them in return.

Identity politics is the product of us carving out individuals or groups that we see more closely resembles ourselves. And on that note, let’s turn to the politician’s point of view.

The Politician: Campaigning is the “Freedom-To-Imitate” Game

When a gay couple fight for their right to marriage, they are effectively saying is: I don’t want to be forced to imitate the conventional marriage structure of others.

When some people oppose gay marriage, they are effectively saying is: You should imitate us – our way of living, our understanding of marriage.

When politicians promise on a campaign to protect the rights of homosexuals, what they are effectively saying is: I will let you freely choose who or what behavior you want to imitate.

Almost all political campaign messages boil down to this promise: I will give you what you want. Let’s translate that into: I will let you choose who or what you want to imitate, or you let others imitate. Or perhaps we can call this type of freedom of choice: “freedom to imitate”.

The Economist: Decision-Making is the “Mind Imitation” Game

Speaking of choice, the economists will definitely not miss out on the chance to have a say on decision-making.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the two equilibrium outcomes have one thing in common: both prisoners imitate each other, i.e., they arrive at the same decision to either remain silent or frame the other person. This symmetry is a delicate balance.

In Game Theory and decision-making in daily life, we frequently decide based on what we think other people are thinking. We can think of it as a “mind imitation” game – trying to mimic the thought process of the other party. Thinking out of the box is when your mind is hard for others to imitate – hence you surprise them. The “box” is the set containing all the copies of your mind the other imitators have drawn up.

This quote aptly describes the “mind imitation” game:

I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am.

I am what I think you think I am.

Charles Horton Cooley

The Engineer: AI is the “Create-The-Best-Imitation” Game

Since we started with a look at the evolutionary history of species, let us conclude with a look at an exciting topic that could shape the future of mankind: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The very definition of the phrase AI already reveals that imitation sits at its core:

Definition of artificial intelligence

1. a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers

2. the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When literature & media discuss (or predict) potential dangers of AI, they most often point to the possibility of AI breaking free of the imitation game it is wired to play – instead of imitating human beings, AI achieves a level of transcendental intelligence that we human beings are incapable of imitating (or controlling) in return.

This paragraph below captures the fear of this type of danger:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever…and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

I. J. Good, “Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-intelligent Machine

Life is The Ultimate Imitation Game

We are all “game theorists” – playing the Ultimate Imitation Game of Life. To borrow (& tweak) the words of Shakespeare: to imitate or not to imitate, that is the question. Every decision we make in everything we do is boiled down to whether we imitate, who we imitate, and what we want others to imitate about us.

If life were a grand game of chess, then we are all studying & imitating the moves of other players, while being imitated in return. Each “genius” move is born to be unique, unparalleled & unprecedented, while at the same time born out of imitation.

The winner emerges out of imitating the winning; the loser falls out of being out-imitated. Contrary to conventional belief, victory belongs to the best imitator, not the best creator – as there is no such thing as creation without imitation.

So imitate wisely and take on the game of life victoriously. But when you win, know that the victory is yours but not yours alone – it belongs to the collection of countless imitations that have happened before your time, happening at your time, and will continue to happen in the time to come.

What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence

The Post-Snowden Chilling Effect

Did you know that after the Edward Snowden incident, Google searches on terrorism-related topics went down?

“Oh really?”
After the initial surprise, you say: “Huh…I guess that makes sense. People are afraid that Big Bro will be watching over them if their search results have something to do with security – at least that what Snowden tells us.”

Fair explanation. You smile as your surprise at the fact turns into joy of understanding. But hold on – would you be surprised to learn that Google searches on health-related topics also went down?

That’s right. The Snowden incident made people concerned about privacy at large, and thus they refrain from searching about one of the most private topics – personal health. This is an example of the Chilling Effect:

[A] chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.

Wikipedia

P.S. No pun intended, I find it amusing and easy to remember the Chilling Effect by thinking: post SNOW-den => chilling effect. Of course you feel the chilling effect post Snow-den, n’est-ce pas? 🙂

Silence As A Strategic Choice

Related to the Chilling Effect is the concept of Strategic Silence:

Strategic silence is when you punish perspectives that you don’t like by not reporting them.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

The difference between the Chilling Effect vs. Strategic Silence is on why it is being used – the Chilling Effect is motivated by self-protection, to reduce influence of the outside world; whereas strategic silence is motivated by a drive to maximize control on group-think. Chilling Effect silences the individual and distances self from group; Strategic Silence attempts to silence the group and insulate themselves from (what is perceived to be) opposing tribes.

Straegic silence, deployed at scale, erects ideological siloes and discourages clash of ideas. Eric Weinstein thinks the US society is going through “an epidemic of badly-determined strategic silence”:

We are strategically silent on all sorts of things that the country cares about and doesn’t hold crazy positions on…somehow a group of people want to say that if you even mention restricting immigration in the US, I want to be able to infer that the only reason that is true is because you’ve got a black heart.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

Private vs. Public Discourse

Amy thinks of something to say. She decides where & how to say it – keep it to herself? Text a friend? Post a YouTube video?

Every day, each of us makes seemingly “simple” decisions as Amy: I think of something, how publicly should I express it? And these individual decisions compound into a sizeable impact – how lively is the public discourse? How tolerant is society of diverse or “unconventional” opinions?

On one hand, we see privacy-focused products surfacing, e.g., DuckDuckGo browser, Signal messaging app. On the other hand, we don’t want people to run to these products as sanctuaries, as a result of the Chilling Effect; we don’t want the majority to abuse strategic silence and society is left with one and only one “politically-correct” narrative.

The pendulum continues to swing between private vs. public discourse. Let us hope it strikes the appropriate balance.