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An interesting pattern I’ll call Piggy in the Middle

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on the travails of negotiators & peacemakers ]
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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 ]
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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:
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    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 ]
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    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…


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    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 ]
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    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.

    Landmines in Paradise Garden

    Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — pros and cons of an important piece by Scott Atran — who among us can comprehend religion? ]
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    At play (Minesweeper) in the Fields of the Lord (Bosch, Garden of Eden)

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    Scott Atran, the anthropologist who gave us the book Talking to the Enemy, has got it right (as to importance) but wrong (as to procedure) in his latest, significant piece on Foreign Policy, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us.

    First, the importance of the issue he’s discussing – understanding religions (emphatically plural, IMO):

    Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

    Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.

    Atran is exactly right: we needn’t fly blindly into the storm — but to avoid flying blindly we need to understand those “drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world” — and to avoid flying into the storm at all we may (all of us, friends and foes alike) need to understand our own “transcendent drives and dreams” better than we do at present.

    The question is, who can help us do that?

    That’s what I mean by the procedure — the path that should be taken to achieve that kind of understanding. And note: there are different kinds of understanding — theoretical, imaginative, visceral… dispassionate, empathetic, impassioned…

    **

    Atran’s answer is science:

    Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

    There’s only one problem there. I can believe that scientists of extraordinary breadth and insight – Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Gell-Mann, Feynman probably – and social scientists — Bateson certainly, Victor Turner, Atran perhaps – my lists are not exhaustive – could make useful suggestions for scientific approaches to the field of religion.

    But scientists in general? As Atran notes:

    If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain’s Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren’t about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it’s no longer necessary to believe.

    Non-believers may “get” what’s dangerous about religions, but they almost certainly won’t “get” what’s marvelous and inspiring about them.

    And believers are no better – they may get what’s great about their own tradition, but still see nothing but perdition in the traditions of others…

    So to get a decent set of insights worth experimenting with — or modeling, for that matter — requires a blend of subtle thinkers to include some social anthropologists, some scholars of comparative religion, some sociologists with fine-tuned statistical skills, some depth psychologists… believers, skeptics, atheists and agnostics… with a whole wild variety of plumages, specialties and interests.

    Yes, and some poets, historians, some hard scientists. Yes.

    **

    How easy is it to get things wrong?

    In his paper Reframing Sacred Values [link is to .pdf] written with Robert Axelrod — the political scientist whose contest for winning strategies for the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game put “tit for tat” and agent based modeling on the map in his books The Evolution of Cooperation and The Complexity of Cooperation — Atran speaks of “Rational versus Devoted Actors“.

    The distinction is a significant one. And the paper itself is important because, as Atran and Axelrod suggest:

    Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent’s sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or should try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.

    But who is to say which actors are “devoted”?

    The most devoted may be the one who stands in most need of redemption, the one who has sinned the most, not the one who has been the most pious. Let me put that another way: the most devoted may be the drunken reveler rather than the regular church- or mosque-goer.

    **

    Consider:

    Inigo was a courtier, a conquistador, a musketeer. The commandments were of course unquestionable in theory, but practice was entirely another matter. Church was for times of danger or for celebration of victory, and he never prayed so hard to our Lady as before a duel. In his last years when he had no need to be boastful, he was quoted by his secretary- biographer: “Though he was attached to the faith, he lived no way in conformity with it and did not avoid sin. Rather, he was much addicted to gambling and dissolute in his dealings with women, contentious and keen about using his sword.”

    Inigo found plenty of trouble…

    A scientist might not think such a person a reliable example of religious fervor. An antagonist of religion might think it illustrates the flaws of religion perfectly.

    The passage in question comes from a life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

    Religion is a subtle matter. We may think it a matter of belief, but it may be a matter of behavior – orthopraxy vs orthodoxy is the distinction the folks in religious studies make — or of visionary experience.

    It may “take one to know one” – as Thomas Merton, the Catholic contemplative understood the Buddhist contemplatives he met. But then he was open to the possibility that others might have intuitions not dissimilar to those he himself had had. “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism,” he once wrote — Sufism being the mystical strand in Islam. Indeed, I received a letter from him myself while still a student at Oxford, in which he wrote of his life in the Abbey of Gethsemani, “here you get beaten for being a dervish. I am bruised for this all day long.”

    **

    But again, one can be blinded by one’s own faith to the merits of the faiths of others. And this is also a subtle business.

    Retired US Gen. Jerry Boykin, for instance, said in April last year (link is to YouTube video):

    Sharia law is a very serious threat in America. We are being invaded by a group of people who see it as their absolute imperative to establish a legal system in America which will in fact destroy our Constitution to be replaced by this thing called Sharia law.

    One wonders what Boykin might make of the late California Presbyterian teacher, RJ Rushdoony — a figure, I’m guessing, far to the General’s right?

    As is widely known, the New Testament contains a “Great Commission” which Christ gave to his apostles after his Resurrection:

    Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:18-20.

    Rushdoony, in his master work The Institutes of Biblical Law, makes it clear that in his views, this constitutes a divine mandate to bring Biblical law into effect in all nations: “The fulfillment of that covenant is their great commission: to subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word” (Institutes, p. 14) and this is to be achieved in terms of a single world order, “The goal is the developed Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, a world order under God’s law” (Institutes, p. 357).

    Sadly, the church no longer recognizes the full implications of the Great Commission, and has fallen into a heresy that is political in nature: “The church today has fallen prey to the heresy of democracy” (Institutes, p. 747). In truth, the laws of a democratic society will need to be replaced by the laws of God as set forth in the Old Testament: “While all Scripture is God’s law word, the heart of that law is the law of Moses” (Institutes, p. 675).

    Here’s where it gets trickier, though:

    Slavery, too, will need to be reinstituted: “The (Biblical) Law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognizes his position and accepts it with grace” (Institutes, p. 251).

    **

    This thing called “religion” is difficult to pin down. It has extremes that appear unconscionable even to many who claim devotion to the same scriptures as do the extremists. It features violence, peace, apocalypse as destruction and apocalypse as fresh creation.

    Atran is an anthropologist – he surely knows this.

    The study of religion involves walking through a minefield — in the gardens of Paradise…


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