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Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?


Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.


How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?


An interesting pattern I’ll call Piggy in the Middle

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the travails of negotiators & peacemakers ]

I’m thinking of the simple, three-player version of the children’s game called Piggy in the Middle. Two plays face each other and toss a ball back and forth, while a third player standing between them attempts to intercept the ball in passing. In the case below (upper panel), Phillip Smyth is “piggy in the middle”.

I’m suggesting there’s a pattern here that’s worth watching for. Bill Keller, opining in the NYT under the title Iran’s Hardliners, and Ours (lower panel, above), thinks that if you’re piggy in the middle, “you’ve probably done something right.”

That’s a thought that might have comforted my childhood, though I don’t think it’s true in an “always applicable” sense. I do think it suggests that both sides in a fierce argument may often have something to be said for them, and that a skillful negotiator will be one who can “hear the truth” in both sides and winnow them out of the turmoil as the basis for a rapprochement

And BTW, it’s clearly a lot more work being “piggy in the middle” that either of the two other players — for one thing, you’re constantly forced to spin around to catch a ball you just missed, as it whistles by in the opposite direction to the one it was going in when you just missed it. Blessed are the peacemakers.


Wikipedia’s entry on Piggy in the Middle is titled Keep Away. As of this writing, it contains what is undoubtedly my current favorite comment on any game in the entire literature of play up to this point in time:

The game has a worldwide use of playing; mostly in many countries.

That’s good to know, and or maybe not.


Most intriguing game-theoretic comment of the year thus far

Friday, September 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- at the intersection of zero-sum and non-zero sum games ]

And the hands-down winner is — opening today’s Washington Post to the op-ed page — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who says:

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

I think he’s right, though I’ll leave the question of whether he means it TBD — but if he does, that’s a.. that’s a.. that’s a Major Game Changer — and verra interesting in any case:

  • What’s the non-zero-sum strategy when there may be one or more zero-sum players in the game?
  • **

    For your further edification, here’s what a genuine game-changer, in both literal and metaphoric sense of the phrase, looks like:


    The court is a tennis court, the game in play is revolutionary politics, the event is the Tennis Court Oath, where the members of the National Assembly gathered to swear “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” — the drawing is by Jacques-Louis David.


    Playing a double game

    Monday, November 19th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a chess variant exploring the twinned human drives for competition and collaboration ]

    I posted a neat piece of math the other day, showing how dogs might respond to conditions of combined fear and rage in terms of a catastrophe theory diagram, and Larry Dunbar pointed out in a comment that humans might respond differently in equivalent circumstances depending on whether they had a strategy going into the situation or not…


    The idea that humans can have an override on such instinctive drives as fear and rage is obviously an important one, and Larry’s comment reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to make about another “dualism” we humans are subject to…


    Humans are not IBM machines: they have dual drives, responding to a greater or lesser extent at all times to competitive and collaborative motivations.

    I was attempting to capture something of that essential dualism in the simplest possible game format when I devised my story-telling chess variant for Ruth Catlow‘s Rethinking Wargames blog:

    My own chess variant, which would require two fairly accomplished story-tellers of roughly equal chess strength to play it, is one in which the game is played as in any chess game, following the usual rules, with the added proviso that at each move, the player should write a fictionalized account of the move, such that the combined narratives of the two players taken together in sequence of moves constitutes a story for publication.

    The point is that each player then has two motives in making each move — a chess-winning-motive, and a storytelling-collaborative-motive — and the way they play will thus reflect something that parallels human motivation, with its characteristic mix of survival drive and quest for selfactualization / spirituality.

    I’m neither a decent chess-player not a decent writer of fiction, but I believe I’m a first rate conceptual game designer, and that this game concept captures something essential about the human condition in simple form. I offer it as a thought-experiment with “live” game potential.


    One last thought:

    I suspect that this game is in effect a game for exploring the intersection of zero-sum with non-zero-sum games, so playing with the interactions of collaboration and competition should also offer us insight into the interactions of quality and quantity.


    For more on Ruth Catlow’s work, see her book Artists Re: thinking Games.


    Numbers by the numbers: three / pt 1

    Monday, September 10th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- I thought it might be timely to consider trinary thinking in light of Zen's recent post featuring Clausewitz' Trinity ]

    I know, it sounds inherently ridiculous, but what would happen if we thought in threes instead of twos? I mean, we tend to see things in terms of black and white, good and bad. Let’s set up a binary of our own — US President George W Bush vs the Aymara of the Andes and Altiploano:

    Two into three won’t go, as they used to say in math class when I was a kid.

    Hegel thought otherwise. Hegel thought two needed to move on into three, or we’d be stuck with binaries in stasis for ever. Hegel’s dialectic is about the possibility called three – which opens the otherwise static two up to various kinds of process…


    We tend to view conflicts in binary terms: “who goes there, friend or foe?” is the challenge I was supposed to offer Mad Mitch the Axe Man if I ran across him as a CCF trainee in the grounds of my old school, Wellington College.

    What is conflict is viewed in trinary?

    Here is Chris Crawford, from his justly famous 1982 Art of Computer Game Design:

    The advantage of asymmetric games lies in the ability to build nontransitive or triangular relationships into the game. Transitivity is a well-defined mathematical property. In the context of games it is best illustrated with the rock-scissors-paper game. Two players play this game; each secretly selects one of the three pieces; they simultaneously announce and compare their choices. If both made the same choice the result is a draw and the game is repeated. If they make different choices, then rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper enfolds rock. This relationship, in which each component can defeat one other and can be defeated by one other, is a nontransitive relationship; the fact that rock beats scissors and scissors beat paper does not mean that rock beats paper.

    We’re back in play…


    Here, too, is a bit from m’friend Wm. Benzon, jazz-player, blogger, polymath:

    Three against two is one of the most important rhythm ‘cells’ in all of music. What do I mean, three against two? You play three evenly spaced beats in one ‘stream’ in the same period of time you play two evenly spaced beats in another ‘stream.’ It sounds simple enough but, the problem is that three and two do not have a common divisor, making the ‘evenly spaced’ part of the formula a bit tricky. The two patterns coincide on the first beat, but the second and third beats of the three-beat stream happen at different times from the second beat of the two-beat stream. And if you think that’s a lot of verbiage for something that ought to be simple, when then you’re beginning to get the idea.

    Noting that the brain has a hard time moving from two to three this way, Benzon quotes old-time piano virtuoso Joseph Hoffman:

    In faster motion it is far better to practise at first each hand alone and with somewhat exaggerated accents of each group until the two relative speeds are well established in the mind. Then try to play the two hands together in a sort of semi-automatic way. Frequent correct repetition of the same figure will soon change your semi-automatic state into a a conscious one, and thus train your ear to listen to and control two different rhythms or groupings at the same time.

    Those readers already familiar with my insistence on many-voiced (ie polyphonic) listening will quickly grasp that Hoffman is speaking of just that kind of broadening of our mental horizons — of our thinking capacities.


    I’d like to close part 1 of this two part post within my “Numbers by the numbers” series, with a quote from LtGen Paul Van Riper (USMC Ret.), The Foundation of Strategic Thinking at Infinity Journal:

    The United States and its allies need senior civilian officials and military officers who grasp the fundamental nature of systems, are adept at building shared mental models, comprehend the significance of Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity, understand operational art and can connect strategic thinking with tactical actions through operational design. These are the true competencies of modern defense professionals.

    As in conflict, as in Clausewitz, so in conflict resolution: we need to be able to think in trinary — in trinities — and beyond.

    More on that — which interested me enough that I once designed a trinary game of my own, played with great splash and delight by three kids in a swimming pool — in the second part of this post.


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