Monday, June 11, 2018

Banned and Restricted Announcement - June 11, 2018

Image result for goblin chainwhirler

By Errant Foresight

STANDARD: No changes

You read that correctly. Goblin Chainwhirler remains Standard-legal, and that will be the case until Dominaria rotates. We simply cannot keep banning cards every few months just because the internet has allowed the competitive Magic community to distill a format to its most cold-blooded essence in record-breaking time. Banning kills consumer confidence and creates a general feeling of uncertainty and paranoia, even if it does make Standard reasonable for a few weeks until you all break it again.

In this particular instance, well...Dominaria has the makings of a classic set. The cards are fun, powerful, and appealing, and the draft format may legitimately be the best of all time. We don't want a blemish on what we hoped would be our signature offering for years to come.

That's why we're asking for your help. We believe--and we think everyone would agree--that everything would be a lot better if you just...chose not to play Goblin Chainwhirler in your Standard decks. Please? The card has fostered an unhealthy homogeneity in deckbuilding and created negative net fun for everyone who plays our most popular format. If you all could reach a mutual agreement to leave it out of your decks without us actually having to ban it, everyone wins.

We're not decreeing that you can't keep playing the Chainwhirler deck--and don't kid yourself, there's only one actual deck there. But what does it say about you if you continue to play it in light of the damage it causes? I can't speak for anyone else, but I know I wouldn't sleep well at night if I were contributing to a poor experience for Magic players the world over. The "win at all costs" mentality has deleterious effects on others and on yourselves.

Furthermore, isn't the card what some would call "training wheels"? Are you really so bereft of talent that you need some undercosted development failure to do your heavy lifting? Are you incapable of winning two rounds at FNM without freerolling your opponents' Llanowar Elves and Glint-Sleeve Siphoners? You don't actually want to play Magic; you just want the automatic wins. Luis Scott-Vargas himself has gone on record that he looks down upon this play pattern. Maybe you don't need Chainwhirlers--maybe what you really need is practice.

If you insist on continuing to ruin everyone's fun because you suck at Magic, I challenge you to the following: the next time a young mage shows up to your LGS with a Saproling deck, I want you to look his or her parents in the eyes and tell them that YOU'RE the reason their kid will be having a horrible time this evening. Tell them it's more important for you to win a couple of boosters than for their son or daughter to find fulfillment in expressing themselves creatively. If you can bear to do that, by all means, keep whirling those chains. But the least you can do is take a little responsibility for your behavior.

Now, we understand that not everyone will be amenable to this line of thinking, because not everyone is as smart and reasonable as we're hoping you'll be. If your friends or someone else at your LGS continue to play Goblin Chainwhirlers, we're giving you the green light to ridicule them. If we're all being honest, some of you don't like this sanitized, kumbaya environment we've been trying to foster, and you've got a lot of pent-up hostility. This is your ticket to berate a host of people consequence-free. If the Chainwhirler stalwarts in question are your friends, it might be time for some serious soul-searching. Why would you want to associate with someone who's willing to win at the cost of literally killing the game you love? Stop inviting them to your group outings until they put the goblins down. They'll come around.

We are also changing the way we report winning decklists from the Magic Online metagame. Standard League decklists will continue to be curated in a way that ensures that a diverse array of decks is shown, and to make that even more effective, any deck that manages to win with multiple one-toughness creatures in it will be displayed at the top of the list and will be displayed the following week as well. This is not intended to "trick" you into playing one of these decks, but rather to show you the possibilities that are unlocked when the players who insist on playing Goblin Chainwhirler (who we refer to internally using the "SpikeWhirlers" psychographic) decide to embrace their inner "Richie/Rachelle" (psychographic for players who are insensitive to entry fee losses).

So to reiterate, Goblin Chainwhirler is NOT banned. But we'd really prefer if you didn't play it.

MODERN: Mox Opal, Scalding Tarn, and Cavern of Souls added to Reserve List

Not every Spike is what we would call a Spike-Richie or Spike-Rachelle. With increasing frequency, a new player looking to join in on the Modern format fun faces a significant and difficult investment decision. Some Modern decks now cost what Legacy decks cost just a few years back. That investment requires trust in Wizards and for some it requires putting money they might need later in life into a Magic collection. In order to protect that investment, we are adding Mox Opal, Scalding Tarn, and Cavern of Souls to our Reserve List.

This ensures that Modern remains an accessible format by protecting the investments new and existing players make when buying into decks like Affinity, Lantern (a popular entry-level choice), Storm, Humans, and others. What makes Modern great is _____ [Note to editor: please ask around and find someone who knows the answer, nobody on our floor had it], and we think these Reserve List additions will give more players access to that experience without having to risk financial ruin if we reprint their cards.

There is one more detail here I need to mention quickly. Our Reserve List commitment is to protect not only valuable cards as the stated intent might suggest, but also random cards that are not yet valuable, but could someday become valuable by virtue of being on the Reserve List. Would we structure our promise this way if making it today? No we wouldn't, but it is the promise we made. So we are also adding Gideon's Phalanx; Chandra, Bold Pyromancer; and Rimefeather Owl from Modern to the Reserve List.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

That wasn't even the worst question...(GDS3)

Mark Rosewater revealed the answer key to the Great Designer Search 3's multiple choice test about a week ago and some interesting discussion has followed.

Even those of us who weren't involved in GDS3 directly took interest, most notably PVDDR:

Thus began a long Twitter discussion over whether that 4/4 flyer question was sloppily worded or downright incorrectly worded, or something else.  

I thought the question was so poorly worded that if the test actually mattered, and I was in charge, I would throw it out.  But today I'd like to point out that this wasn't even the worst offender on that same test!  If I could only throw out one question, I would throw this one out:

32. You've designed a card, and you want the Play Design team to like it. How should you choose your casting cost? 
a. Ask someone from the Play Design team to choose the casting cost.
b. Find a similar card as a basis for the casting cost and then make it one cheaper.
c. It doesn't matter; they'll fix the cost if you get it wrong.
d. Pick the strongest cost that isn't broken.
e. Use your intuition.
Here is Mark Rosewater's notes in the answer key:
Making Magic is a collaborative process. To best accomplish this, you need to learn to let people play to their strengths. Could I cost a card? Sure, but I won't do it as well as a play designer who was hired specifically for their ability to judge power level. By asking them first, I lessen the chance that playtesting gets affected because of poor costing. Also, if your goal is to get Play Design (or anyone, really) to sign off on something, it helps to involve them in the process.
I don't think MaRo's answer is the best or even the second best answer among the choices given.

The biggest problem with this answer is that asking another team for help is absolutely part of a healthy exchange of ideas and part of solving complex problems in a collaborative way, but it's a very dangerous hammer if even routine daily tasks such as picking a casting cost for a card you want spikes to like start to look like nails. 

"Who should write the first draft?" is an important question in many contexts.  "Who should review that first draft and help improve it?" is a separate and equally important concern.  But the answer to these challenges is certainly not to collapse them into one question or one step.  It's fine if Play Design has early and frequent input into the design of casting costs, and it's even fine if there is an exceptional circumstance in which they do get first crack at it (if the card has "Emrakul" in it's name for example, maybe we can shortcut right to Play Design input), but the question's only parameter here is that the designer wants Play Design to like the card.  That's way too broad a category of designs to be going out to a team whose primary job isn't design and asking them to do the initial design work.

One answer (not my favorite) that is still better than MaRo's top choice is "Pick the strongest cost that isn't broken."  This isn't an ideal starting point since you won't always be right about what is broken, you might not even have enough context to know what broken means in the world the card will be released into, and not every cost should be near the maximum power level anyway, but your best guess at strongest not-broken cost is a better starting point for Play Design to work with than no starting point at all ("you pick it"), especially if you just interpret "isn't broken" conservatively.  So if you're using this sparingly (which you better be - see above) then "strong but not broken" plus your intuition (hmm, what's that?) about where that line is, applied conservatively, leaves you at least actually attempting to do your job before handing it off to QA.

Because the other answers are all deeply flawed, "Use your intuition" is the best answer among those presented, even though it's a weird answer in the context of multiple choice.  You don't think your best designers can create casting costs that please the Play Design team within the boundaries of fair power level, even as a first draft that will get additional testing?  That's a depressingly low bar for design.  And if you're thinking, "'Intuition' is just too ill-defined to scale properly or be consistent designer to designer" or something like that, my response is, "If intuition wasn't involved in a big way, they'd be tweaking algorithms instead of interviewing humans for the design roles."  Let me get this straight, intuition is something we all know is a major asset your strongest designers have, but incoming designers are scored INCORRECT if they say they intend to use their intuition to design a card?

I"ll end with this: The Legal team (my team) where I work often reviews marketing materials before they are released, to check for claims that might not be well supported, IP issues like use of trade names & media, trade secret/confidentiality concerns about the level of detail in any description, among other issues.  If I'm interviewing a marketing candidate and I ask them, "How would you make sure that marketing descriptions of, say, certain security features are satisfactory to the Legal team?" the answer, "I'd use my intuition about what Legal is looking for, then have Legal review a draft before it goes out" is a pretty good answer (not quite as good as actually unpacking what the issues might be or how to find out, but pretty good).  On the other hand, "I'd ask Legal to draft the content for me" would be a horrible answer.  

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Pros' Open Letter: A Case Study in Allies Missing the Point

I’ll join the chorus of applause for the empathy and good intentions on display in “An Open Letter to the Magic Community By VariousMagic Pros”.  Moving a step or two beyond intentions, into the ideas and action plans these allies have presented, I will be holding my applause. 

You Almost Never Solve a Problem without Locating It First

I saw at least one screenshot of an MTGHeadquarters tweet about Christine Sprankle that I found deeply troubling. 

(h/t to Drew Levin who when asked for evidence of abuse showed how easy it was to find it). 

The video has been taken down, but I don’t think it’s hard to see how tagging someone @[theirhandle] into a discussion about cosplayers being raped with the intention of annoying/trolling that person crossed the line into online harassment and bullying.  I won’t be contorting myself to defend this, and if I could snap my fingers and have this never happen again, I would.  People asked, and are still asking, “Was this actually a big deal?”  And I think it was.

The Pros’ letter states,

“The online harassment she has been receiving is demeaning to her as a cosplayer, content producer, and member of the Magic community. Unfortunately, Christine is one of many people whose enthusiasm for Magic has been negatively impacted by pervasive cynicism and bullying.” (emphasis mine)

Wait a minute.  “Pervasive cynicism and bullying?”  Those aren’t close to the same thing.  The Professor understood this, and in his video was clear and deliberate in identifying himself as a critic and saying he was speaking out about bullying, not about criticism.  What The Professor was wise to articulate, the Pros completely missed. 

A bit further down, the Pros offer,

“Everyone should be able to engage with the game however they see fit—whether that’s playing casually with friends at home, competitively at Grand Prix and Pro Tours, judging tournaments, cosplaying as their favorite characters, streaming on Twitch, or any of the million other ways people enjoy this great game. These are all equally valid. It is unacceptable to treat any of these interests as below yours.”  (emphasis mine).

This is now a full bait-and-switch.  People said the issue wasn’t that serious, this group of Pros and others on Twitter responded (and I believe demonstrated) that it was serious, and now when it’s time to propose a solution we are talking about elitism and rudeness regarding cosplay and commander as inferior hobbies? 

The implication here is that Christine Sprankle stormed off upset that her interests weren’t being treated seriously enough.  In fact, she left the community because she was being insulted, personally and professionally, and harassed.  If you aren’t speaking to what she actually faced, you aren’t supporting her, and you minimize abuse whenever you put it in the same bucket as ordinary criticism/elitism/fandom. 

I was pretty surprised to see the press release about a new coalition against bullying not even wait 3 paragraphs before treating cynicism and elitism as bullying.  Usually people wait until at least the second article to make it clear that they don’t understand what they ought to be targeting, don’t have a real solution to the issues they need to target, and are left with a plan that is ineffective where you need it and problematic where you don’t. 

The players here have good intentions.  But allies need to be reminded over and over again that good intentions aren’t enough.  This group of Pros didn’t even speak to the underlying ideology and culture that led to the bullying Sprankle faced.  Worse yet, they pointed to an ideology of gaming elitism which I believe distracts us from the deplorable conduct of MTG Headquarters that was not motivated by that kind of fandom-elitism stuff. 

If you’re being harassed at an event, there is a judge and event staff already there to help you, and they are much, much easier to identify than even top pros like Immanuel Gerschenson.  Judges and Staff may even be trained on how to properly respond - go to them.  With this letter, the Pros add to volumes of other work by well-intentioned allies producing content that doesn’t understand or speak to the issues that matter.  

Specifics of What the Pros Decided Not to Speak To 

Jeremy at MTG Headquarters / Unsleeved Media holds regressive and hateful views towards women evidenced by the way he discussed cosplay and its fans, up to and including a discussion of rape where he tagged a subject of that discussion (see screenshot, above).  He uses the terminology and the thinking of the internet alt-right, and this thinking is toxic (specifically, it is a bunch of immature people more interested in trolling and being un-PC than in finding a better path forward for the societies we live in - the people not even trying). 

Jeremy was willing to name his target.  The Pros were willing to name her too.  We should be willing to name Jeremy too.  And to name what he has done, not create some sugar-coated approximation about which hobbies someone treats with equal regard.  We should speak out not about “cynicism” generally, but about the kind of unproductive and immature swarm of negativity this era of online trolls is infamous for personally aiming at vulnerable targets.  And if we have solutions to propose while invoking the name of an online harassment victim, they ought to be solutions that address what her harasser did, what motivated him, and/or what control we have over whether he can do it again tomorrow.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Search for Useful Metrics & Fair Discussion

Imagine that there are 10 high schools in a school district and nearly everyone suspects that one school (Acme High School, the one in the poorest neighborhood) has inferior football equipment compared to the rest of the schools. 

Concerned parent David Francis writes an op ed in the local paper stating that something has to change.  He lays out some pretty convincing evidence that Acme is underfunded when it comes to equipment.  He also points out that they have never even been to a state championship quarterfinals in football (which everyone agrees is true).  “For me,” David writes, “The ultimate metric of quality equipment is whether a team is ever represented in even the quarterfinal round of the state championship.”

Another parent, Mark Smith, responds in the comments that although everyone knows Acme has worse equipment, if we use state championship qualification to measure status or progress, we 1) won’t know whether the equipment is improving at all, and 2) are asking the kids to prove, by winning, that they are properly supported.  Can’t we find a different way to measure the equipment, or at least an effect of having good equipment that is closer to the cause (and therefore more reliable, with fewer confounding variables)?

Parents at Acme (and their supporters) can’t believe Mark doesn’t care about these kids getting better equipment!  Mark responds that he does care about the kids, and points out that the teams that make it to the state championship playoff level have 100 advantages other than equipment over Acme High.  Kids move to play at those schools.  The best coaches coach there.  They have every advantage you can think of that comes with caring deeply about winning at football and being in a position to help yourself do it.  Importantly, even with the exact same equipment, Acme will not be making the playoffs in the next 5 or 10 years. 

“So, you don’t think we should even improve the equipment?”  Mark didn’t say that.  In fact he said more than once that we should improve the equipment.  They accuse Mark of simply playing a semantics game.  What exact game and which semantics it is that got unfairly twisted, they never quite say.  David wrote that there is something important and we ought to track our progress, everyone agreed, and then Mark pointed out that the way David suggests we do so simply won’t work

Finally, David adds that “Well, whatever the total circumstances are that keep Acme High out of the state championships, we need to remedy them all.  Stop being a dick.”  But Mark points out that Acme spends its discretionary budget on afterschool programs and SAT training and that those programs might suffer if funds were redirected to football.  In other words, Acme has made different choices than schools that go all out for football championships.  Mark believes we can search for ways to improve the equipment without demanding a state championship.  


This is where we find ourselves whenever someone suggests that we measure our progress in creating a welcoming environment for women and girls by checking in with the Pro Tour and seeing how many women are succeeding there.  Most recently, this article offered Pro Tour participation as not just one thing to check in on, but as “the ultimate metric of success for all efforts meant to make Magic more welcoming.”  There isn’t a way to read that with any amount of fairness and not conclude that Daniel believes that’s where you look to investigate our progress.

But although we do need to measure our progress in inclusiveness, this metric doesn’t work.  The end result of looking there is not a significant increase in understanding what has happened over the last 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years.  

I wrote on twitter that:

The factors that I believe contribute to women not showing up on the Pro Tour are (in no order since I don’t know enough to come close to ranking anything): sexism and discrimination denying them opportunities and resources,  personal choices about how to spend their time and energy, personal choices about what a successful and healthy hobby is, the competitive advantage men have accrued over years of having fewer barriers and more interest (whether that interest is caused by a toxic community or not, the gap that accumulates is there), the fact that Wizards of the Coast has hired the most promising players and role models off of the Pro Tour into jobs that prohibit them from competing, and other factors. 

My relationship to this hobby was the most negative in my life when I was trying the hardest to qualify for the Pro Tour.  I put in hours and hours and got little tangible benefit in return.  Yes I made friends along the way, but that’s the kind of thing people say whenever they do something stupid for a long time and happen to make a friend out of someone else walking that same misguided path.  Was I financial rewarded?  Was I emotionally rewarded in a way that let me find balance in my life (eventually, yes, but not until over a decade of financially and emotionally draining choices).  I don’t want to fall into the familiar trap of measuring women’s progress using men’s goals.  And there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that men and women do not choose to spend their time the same way or pursue the same goals, for a multitude of reasons.  (This is an article about the research which I found informative on the topic:

If you go survey women at local game stores and try to measure inclusion that way, there will be confounding variables too (selection bias unless you somehow find all the ones that stopped showing up comes to mind), but does anyone doubt that that survey is closer to the source of what we are trying to measure?  There are countless numbers of ways to check in with how we’re doing as a community when it comes to inclusiveness.  Stop focusing on the one with the most confounding variables, the one that hasn’t moved whether things have gotten worse or better over the years.  If you want to measure how you’re doing on something, get close to the damn thing and measure it fairly.

Lastly, if we want to measure diversity on the Pro Tour, let's measure it.  In that case, we are close to what we intend to measure in the same way we can always claim "Acme High isn't very competitive in football" and make a case.  What gets us in trouble is making a claim of one type, and a measurement of a very different type.  The trouble we get into can be described as a severed feedback loop, total blindness, about our progress towards an important goal (and lack of clarity about what that goal is).  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Letter to Dad - My Issues with your Vote for Trump (by Anonymous Guest Author)

[Note from Matt Sperling: I did not write the piece below, and my dad did not vote for Trump (legacy virtue signaling - mise).  I promise I will not post things on this blog under 'anonymous' that I myself wrote.  But a friend asked me to share this letter to his father who voted for Trump.  I've written letters I never sent, and I've written things about my family and friends and I never shared.  I'm happy to provide my friend a platform that doesn't expose him and his father to direct consequences, not that anything below is particularly shocking.  Because there was some confusion last time I posted anonymously, I'll say again that I am not the author of this piece, and it should not be referred to as the "Sperling piece."  I appreciate that and if any of my other friends have anything they'd like to share anonymously, my door is always open.]


I appreciate the fact that you haven't reached out in the last day or so. You were right to assume that my wife, I, and many people like us are having trouble rationalizing the events of the election. The space has been necessary for us.

This e-mail serves two functions. First, it is my vent, as I know our relationship can take it, and I know you're interested in my perspective. This will not be my entire perspective, but will encapsulate many thoughts I've been having. Second, this will hopefully serve as a first wave for terms of discussion later—ways that we can engage productively about the election and our President elect going into the future.

On the second point, I believe that your vote for Trump—personally, and as your position in the news media—has conceded a few issues to me that you've been proffering the last 8-10 years. And bringing up these issues in the future will no longer lead to fruitful discussion. I hope that we can agree that the points are no longer worth further consideration. They are:

(1) Divisiveness

For 8 years, I've had to listen to you talk about how Obama is a bad leader because he's about tearing people apart, rather than bringing him together.

This election, you voted for someone who has traded on nothing but divisiveness the entire campaign. As he is not yet in office, I do not accept as a defense that he will "act differently once he's governing." Over the last year, he has provided no evidence for that—other than that he has proven a consistent liar throughout his tenure. This certainly doesn't count as a virtue in my book, especially considering that his track record of lies dwarfs any candidate in recent memory. We have no idea how he will govern because he has a record of saying whatever to anyone if it sounds like it will work at the time.

Just a few points of open, public division he purposefully sown:
  • Trump started his campaign by publicly calling many Mexican Immigrants rapists—a group that includes over 11.7 million people by conservative estimates, which doesn't include families;
  • he disparaged Muslim Americans and all people of the Islamic faith, which is about 3.3 million people currently in America (not to mention at least 1.6 billion worldwide);
  • he's made quite clear his thoughts on women—which contributed the largest gender gap in voting since 1972—and a point I'll return to in the "Role Model" section;
  • he's openly mocked a disabled reporter (more on that in "Rule of Law" section), and whether or not you believe he was mocking him personally, or was doing as Ann Coulter defended, "a standard retard impression," he's not doing much to unite that front either. Estimates ranging from 30 million to 50 million people in America having some form of socially constraining disability. 400,000 Americans have Downs Syndrome, approximately 6,000 are born each year, and they have parents and families who love them and believe in them.
  • Oh, and the certainly not-divisive idea of jailing his Democrat opposition. (More again in "Rule of Law"—don't worry, based on his nice words towards Clinton immediately after winning, it doesn't sound like he'll be following that one through.)
Obviously, I can continue on about the various groups, franchised or disenfranchised, that Trump has used as a punching bag on his way to the top, but that's superfluous to the main idea that Trump is the most divisive major candidate in modern history.

Trump has gleefully fueled these flames to get out the vote with people who agree with him, and I don't blame him for that. He did what worked for him. But I refuse to accept any talk in the future about divisiveness being a valid reason for your dislike of Obama. Trump has constantly shown himself purposefully divisive, further pulling the poles away from one another. A vote for Trump says clearly to me that rather than Obama's divisiveness, you just didn't like that Obama disagreed with you on political issues.

(2) Rule of Law

Much of our discussion about Obama revolved around the perceived power grabs within the executive branch, doing things "against the Constitution." Again, I feel that a vote for Trump also concedes this point. Not that Obama didn't extend the power of the branch, but that your distain for Obama wasn't born from his positions in that regard—and as we've discussed, haven't really been much different than Presidents who came before him.

Trump has publicly advocated for:
  • Banning all Muslims from entering this country, and/or banning them from this country. (Of which all mention has been scrubbed from his website since the election. No surprise there.)
  • Killing families of terrorists—basically the textbook definition of a war crime.
  • Loosening libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists. He has shown no respect for reporters and the press—evidenced, for one, by his first act as President Elect of not allowing reporters to travel on his trip to meet Obama. (While he actively forwards the type of journalism done by his campaign executive officer, Stephen Bannon at Breitbart news. We could certainly debate the merits of using the term "propaganda" here, as I hope that a newsman would respect.)
  • Paying for the legal bills of anyone who punches a protestor at his rallies. (He since reneged on that offer after someone tried to take him up on it, not unlike the countless subcontractors who've said he's refused to pay them for services and goods over the years—a fact he seems quite proud of.)
  • Torture and specifically waterboarding, which since George W. Bush is agreed upon as torture under U.S. and International law. And John Yoo (of the famous Yoo Memo, the author of Bush's position on waterboarding and Enhanced Interrogation) came out saying that Trump doesn't understand the implications of waterboarding.
  • Open bias against him by a judge due to non-American parentage (the judge is an American-born citizen). He has also shown no respect for judges, trying his "bias" case not with recusal filings—which were not filed—but by appealing to his large media empire. This shows savage lack of respect for the rule of law, and the role of the judiciary in general.

    He said that the judge has an "inherent conflict of interest" because he's "of Mexican heritage" [emphasis added]. (We should add this back into the "Divisiveness" category too, right?) When pressed that we have a tradition in this country of not judging based on heritage in the judiciary he said, "I'm not talking about tradition ... I'm talking about common sense."

    Is an inherent conflict of interest based on heritage now common sense? Seems he's admitting to his own divisiveness too.
  • Judgment against the Central Park Five, despite their exoneration and release, deemed wrongly convicted from a case in 1989. He believes "they're still guilty" and should be judged as such.
  • Jailing a political opponent despite the justice department saying that she is not a criminal.
  • NEW ADDITION: Trump has said that he will try to appoint justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, a case with 43 years of precedent, and a whole wing of law shaped around it. Yet, in the same interview said that gay marriage is "the law of the land" and we must obey the law. Either he doesn't know how this works, or he doesn't care.
Some of these things said in a private capacity are not blameworthy, but when seeking the highest office in the land, while disparaging these institutions—and further, the Constitution—is patently disrespectful of order, and the Rule of Law. For years I listened to how Obama had no respect for the Constitution or Rule of Law, yet you voted for a candidate who actively suggests that the only law that matters is his interpretation of the law.

I don't want to hear that adherence and respect for the rule of law was an issue for you not liking Obama.

(3) President as a Role Model

This has little to do with anything other than the fact that I had to sit and listen to why having the rapper Common visit the White House was an affront because of lyrics he wrote in a display of artistry. "That type of person" shouldn't be representing such abhorrent views in the White House, you said. (Of course, say nothing for the fact that George W. Bush also brought a man to the White House with the lyrics, "I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.")

Donald Trump, with no veil of artistic expression, has constantly demeaned women in the most derogatory of ways. The retrograde sentiments against women, immigrants, and Muslim Americans is now reverberating through the schools in the country. Feel free to read some of the survey comments from Elementary School teachers six months ago—pre-future presidential status—now literally titled "The Trump Effect."

If you don't feel the way someone comports themselves in the highest public office matters, then I shouldn't have had to listen to Bill Clinton–hating talk, nor the negative regards toward whoever Obama brought to the White House, and the things they had said previous to their visit.

You brought an openly bigoted misogynist, with more disgusting quotes than the entire Common discography into the White House—and not just for a day's performance, but for four years.

If you don't think that the way our President openly feels about women, or immigrants, or Muslims, has an effect on how children are perceived by their peers, and how they perceive themselves, that's fine. But if that's the case, I certainly shouldn't have had to listen to how Obama's presence was devaluing the morals of the office.

There are tons of points and issues we can discuss constructively going forward, and I'm excited , as usual. But as I have always tried to listen to everything you've had to say in your unfettered Obama hatred, these are the three biggest points sticking in my craw—that I now view as hypocrisies.

Obama certainly has his problems—both as President, and as candidate—but these three issues in particular seem no longer worth engaging.

We can talk about the failure of the DNC both in candidate choice and appeal to Americans without college educations who make less than $30,000/year; we can talk about the unfavorability of and problems with the chosen candidate; we can talk about the smugness and lack of empathy of American liberalism which certainly added fuel to the rural counties' high voter turnout in conjunction with Trump's ability to do so; we can talk about how Obama's failure to correct, and furtherance of, the terrible drone and bombing policy in the Middle East allowed the machine to be in the hands of an avowed Muslim hater.

But moreover, we can talk about our hopes for the next four years in political leadership; we can talk about potential large changes to foreign policy, both with regards to war and trade that would never happen without a maverick like Trump; or we could talk about the potential election-law, lobbying, and electoral-college reform now on the table like it never has been before. We can talk about the best way forward for all of us.

I just can't do any of that with a straight face without hearing some sort of recognition that many of the complaints you rallied against Obama for almost the entire decade, not only apply to the candidate you just voted for, but are apparent in much higher doses than with the almost-too-stoically composed current Commander in Chief.

I feel you used those arguments to further justify your position against Obama, even though they held little weight for you—as your vote for Trump has shown. Not a vote for Clinton (who has her own issues), not for a third party, and not as an unbroken chad in the "President/Vice President" slot on your ballot—but a vote for someone with literally zero political experience, zero evidence of any sort of prevailing worldview outside of his own aggrandizement, and has been shown to say anything—no matter how outlandish—as long as the crowd likes it.

I love you very much. And I'll talk to you soon,

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Lifestyle of the Professional Magic: The Gathering Player

by Anonymous Pro 
[The Pro Tour player who wrote this asked me to share it without his name attached.  Please respect the author's anonymity by not sharing guesses or context clues about who may have written this piece.] 

Many articles have been written about the lifestyle of a pro. They are all lying, of course. The first rule of the Pro Club is that you don't talk about it. Nobody ever tells the truth because it just doesn't sell. You are a consumer.

Staring at the bottom of your glass, you reflect upon yet another weekend. Yet another city that looks the same as the last one, yet another airport, yet another convention center, yet another hotel. This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.

If the tournament is a success, you drink to celebrate. A failure and you drink to commiserate. Either way, the alcohol dulls the extreme emotions of victory and defeat. This tournament might be one of the lucky ones, where you make the early-morning trip home with some hardware jammed into your backpack, a phone full of notifications, and some weariness lifted from your heart. But most of the time, you are simply hungover and empty, passing your documents to the official before boarding your plane home.

Why would anyone want to live this life? One might also ask why someone would become a heroin addict. Cardboard crack is just as addictive as its cousin, and it has even been said that "nobody ever really leaves Magic, they just take breaks." Magic, the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can't.

As a young person seeking escape from a grime and lonely existence, Magic was the perfect vessel. It slowly changed from an escape to something more, as you became more and more competitive and began to reach higher and higher tiers of play. Attempts to play FNM or casual games of Commander couldn't get the juices going anymore, you now require a higher dosage of the drug only available at high-stakes tournaments.

You are awake late at night, unable to sleep, too many thoughts caught swirling around in your mind. With insomnia, nothing's real. Everything's far away. You're never really asleep, and you're never really awake. You head downstairs to the couch, turn on the television. A late night talk show host is going on about some debate. You haven't really been following the election. You shift over and knock a stack of cards over, and frantically drop to the floor to gather them all back up into a stack.

You wake up to the sound of your alarm clock. Somehow you had dragged yourself back into bed and slept for 7 hours. Its already 2pm, and your flight is leaving in a couple hours. You check your phone to see where you are off to this time. Providence, RI. What format is that again? You check your luggage. No cards packed, it must be a limited event. You wake up at O'Hare airport. Your last memory was checking your bags before leaving your house.

"I pass the turn. Go ahead." Your head bobs up. You have 5 cards in your hand. 3 lands in play. Your opponent has 5 creatures and your life-pad says you are on 3 life. Doesn't seem like you are winning this one.

Another round. You see your opponent signing the match slip, carefully check to see that its 2-1 in your favor. Good thing you got that one. What round is it again? The slip says 12. You always communicate in algebraic notation, only the losses matter, the number of wins changes yet remains irrelevant. You've already accumulated three losses, and in a tournament of this size your chances of top 8 are precisely zero. You simply have to grind out the last few rounds for pro points and cash. The money means nothing to you, it’s simply a number on a computer screen as your online account registers your input of cash, and as you pay bills, the numbers go up and down, up and down. As long as the number never reaches zero, it doesn't matter what it is. You remember a time when the number was so close to zero, and few of the changes were upwards, when earning $250 at a Grand Prix meant something to you. Now you flip coins in the parking lot for thousands of dollars, having started for smaller stakes, but kept on going up and up when flipping for $20 no longer gave you that rush you craved. Just like playing Magic for $250 no longer matters to you. You've dropped from events you could have won a single round in to cash.

You wake up to the sounds of your stomach growling. Home. You check your phone. It says you got 3 pro points in Providence. Good work. Heading downstairs, you open the fridge. There's some bread in the freezer, but the fridge is empty besides a bottle of ketchup, some half-rotten lettuce, an old jar of strawberry jam, and what looks like a couple spoons full of peanut butter.  How embarrassing, a house full of condiments but no food. You close the fridge and drop to your knees on the ground, laying your head on the cool marble countertop, purchased from an Ikea catalog. You've just slept for 13 hours, yet you still feel exhausted. That’s what a weekend of mental exertion with little sleep and a couple of flights will do to you.

People say you are lucky. That you are living the dream. Everywhere you go, they are all the same. Lawyers, Engineers, Teachers. "Do you have another job? How do you make enough money?" are constantly asked. The players you encounter commend you for your skill, and ask for advice you know will ultimately not help them at all. None of them ask questions worth asking. They only want to know what is the next deck to buy, what cards to bring in against this matchup, what is your secret shortcut to being so good. They don't want to know the truth, that success requires deep introspection, self-analysis and extreme dedication. They don't want to be told that even if they tried their hardest and did everything right, they simply aren't smart enough to succeed. "But at least you do what you love," you are told.

This story ends with you on a plane, sitting next to a man in a dark grey suit, sipping on a vodka tonic. Like others, he asked you what you did for a living out of habit, but when he found out his fake interest became real. You look at his briefcase and thousand-dollar watch and wonder if his lifestyle makes him happy, or if he also feels the same melancholy you do. You take out your laptop and begin to slowly drudge out yet another article.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Rational Voting Models – The Problem Space

What is the cost of not voting?  What are the costs of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein?  What are the benefits of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein?  At this point you’ve heard conflicting versions of the One Simple Trick to understanding why voting is/isn’t a waste of time.  Maybe the person advancing one of these even chopped up the electoral map into “voting matters here” and “voting doesn’t matter here” regions – pretty impressive precision.  

Whether stated or implied, each rationale for voting/not-voting/voting-third-party/not-voting-third-party is supported by a voting model.  The arguments all have at their core some model of how an individual can convert a vote into a beneficial outcome (or, alternatively, why she will fail if she tries). 

What I keep seeing are models that address or “solve” a small corner of the problem space but fail to appreciate the vastness of the space.  Let me use an analogy of a simpler (well, more well understood at least) type of model to explain what I mean.  Imagine you’re on a team tasked with the question of what metal materials to use to construct an airplane.  Imagine a colleague walks in urging the team that it should use the strongest metal it can find, because durability and safety were ranked primary among customer and company concerns.  This person has a metal they want to propose to us, they can prove it’s the strongest available, and they can prove that the cabin will be able to take more abuse without puncturing/tearing, etc. using some tests they did in a lab.  That may all be true, yet this person’s model of how an airplane works is obviously and fatally incomplete.

It’s not that they don’t have a model at all, and it’s not that their model isn’t internally rational at answering the narrow problem raised – the issue is that the model doesn’t appreciate that, among other things, the plane has to fly.  Modeling the construction of an aircraft requires addressing problems of aerodynamics, cost, safety, durability, comfort, and more.  You can’t model only durability of the aircraft, address that problem, and move on.

Getting an intuitive sense of the size and scope of the problem space in voting is hard, but below I’ll try to outline different aspects of it, so that when someone says “it’s simple, just …” you can respond “here’s why you’re advancing a position which essentially fails to account for the fact that the plane has to fly.” 

None of my answers to the problems below is itself a working model for the entire problem space.  That’s kind of the point.  Plus, humility in a complex domain is a recurring theme here, and I may be wrong and am not even aiming to be complete in the discussions below.  This is, after all, an attempt to outline the problem space.

Problem 1:
Unless you can distinguish among the parts, building something with parts to spare does not mean any one specific part was useless, and by extension it certainly does not mean all the parts were useless

Say it takes 2000 bricks to build a wall between you and your neighbor.  And say you decide to crowdfund with a goal of 2000 bricks on a website that provides no visibility for anyone as to how many bricks have been donated (imagine they all have to donate on a single Tuesday in November and the website doesn’t tally same-day).  If 2500 of your friends and loved ones each donate 1 brick, for a total of 2500 bricks, there is waste, but how much?  What was the return on investment, in good-things-accomplished, for each donating person?

If you look at it from the vantage point of 1 individual, and consider the margin of 500 extra bricks, there is a temptation to say this individual’s contribution accomplished nothing or worse, created waste.  Had they done nothing, the wall would still be built and with less waste.  But unless you can distinguish among the contributors, you may receive this question 2500 times, and you will have to make this argument 2500 times, and your total return will not sum to the gain achieved (1 wall built, with some waste that isn’t that big a deal).  Your local value, repeated over all local vantage points, not summing to the total, is a gigantic red-flag that your model is broken. 

Because you can’t distinguish between the “core” backers and those on the margin, you have to allocate to each participant both the gains and the losses.  You can’t tell who is a loser on the margin and who is a winner far removed from the margin. 

Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem

My favorite blogger - Scott Alexender of SlateStarCodex - posted some expected value math on his blog that I take strong issue with (despite enjoying the rest of the post).  Scott borrows from 538 that the odds the election is decided by 1 vote are roughly 1 in 60 million generally and closer 1 in a billion in California.  Scott assumes the value of a presidential election win in the right direction is worth roughly $300 Billion.  From this, Scott assigns an expected value to voting of $5,000 generally or $300 in California. 

First, this is double counting.  If even 100 million people do this math locally and conclude their vote has $5k value, the total value expected in that system will be $500 Billion, more than what is at stake in the election under the assumptions.  At the very least, Scott needs to divide by the number of voters in the winning coalition to randomly select the 1 person in the Margin group vs the millions in the Core group.  You don’t get to assume you cast the winning vote or else everyone else will make the same assumption, and your model’s values won’t sum.

Second, what about the other 59,999,999 elections where the margin of victory is more than 1 vote?  The country still stands to win or lose $300 Billion based on whether the best candidate wins, and individuals deciding to turn out and vote, and who they vote for, in the aggregate of course determines the outcome.  You have to allocate the $300 Billion wins even when the margin of victory is not 1.  So Scott is undercounting across scenarios and double counting across indiviudals in the 1-vote-margin scenario.

This is a popular model for expected value of voting, the one that says the return on investment or expected value is equal to the probability that the election comes down to 1 vote, multiplied by the massive benefit that casting the winning vote would have if it occurred.  There is an obvious issue here: most elections are not decided by 1 vote, yet the winning side still got their candidate elected and (presumably) got some benefit out of that win.  The margin isn’t the only thing that exists, and unless you actually want a model that is useless in 99.99999…% of elections, you can’t refuse to allocate the gains because the scenario is “outside the model.”  If you want to accurately model ROI/EV, you need to allocate the returns/values obtained regardless of the margin of victory. 

To drive it home further: I’m sure you’ve encountered someone who simultaneously believes 1) that the collective voting result of the State of California is an incredibly valuable asset controlled by the Democratic Party, and 2) each individual vote in the California is meaningless and shows a return on investment of roughly zero because of the size of the typical margin of victory in CA.  This argument puts every voter on the margin, glues them to that vantage point, and then concludes that they are in the Waste group not the Gains group and allocates to them 0 gains.  This is hiding the ball, but some of the smartest people I know do it without realizing what they are doing.

Problem 2:
Everything is Iterated - the winner never takes all in an iterated context

Suppose the IRS was having its last year of tax collection ever, and they knew it.  Would they ever spend $100k of resources coming after someone for $50k in unpaid taxes?  Well, maybe they would, but hopefully we agree it wouldn’t be a fiscally sound decision.  But in the world where it isn’t the last year of tax collection ever, it might make a lot of fiscal sense to pursue enforcement actions that had immediate negative return on investment.  This is common sense in an iterated context.  Reputations matter, deterrence matters, perceived fairness (participants’ and witnesses’) matters. 

In voting, reputations matter (‘we can’t endorse policy X, we will lose Y voters who have a reputation for caring’), deterrence matters (anyone think presidential candidates haven’t been deterred from taking an honest position on a variety of issues such as how religious they are?), perceived fairness (participants’ and witnesses’) matters (turnout in the next cycle can be impacted this cycle).

So how do the models you encounter hide this ball?

Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem:  “Nobody cares about 1 voter’s reputation.”

Ah, so we’re back to Problem 1, where individual contributions are rounded to zero.  Voters are 1 part in a large collective, but just as their vote doesn’t round to zero, neither does their reputation.  Rounding to zero is refusing to believe the plane must fly.  Candidates are strategic about what positions to take on the campaign trail, what to fight for once elected, etc.  If their constituents had zero reputation, the candidates wouldn’t even know what to do to win them over if they wanted to! 

“In our election system, there will always be two candidates, not a multitude, because the stronger coalition wins, and if one coalition breaks apart it only serves to cement the others’ lead.”  Maybe so, but there is some sleight of hand here as well, to the extent the speaker means the same two parties will be in power, regardless of whether you vote third-party or fall in line and vote major party.  First, you have the American Whig Party being replaced by the Republican Party in our nation’s history.  Second, each election showcases different versions of the GOP and Democrat platforms.  A GOP that gets crushed in 2016 will not likely show up with the same strategy in 2020.  Each vote they didn’t get is an expressed preference in some other direction.  The Parties (at individual and organized collective levels) look at those many directions and then make strategic choices to capture those votes.

We already have a multi-party system, as soon as you pick away at the delusion that the 2000 Democratic Party, for example, is the same exact party as the 2016 Democratic Party.  Plus, if the coalition gets weak enough, a new one forms (Whigs replaced by Republicans).  The names aren’t what we care about, and iteration can alter what the names stand for. 

None of this iteration pressure on parties and candidates can be rounded to zero at the individual level, if you want your numbers to sum properly.

Problem 3:
“Irrational Winners” – The Great Red-flag

Smaller elections are easier to visualize, let’s say in a school election the Class President gets to allocate funding to various afterschool clubs.  The “Math, Physics, & Rationality Club” never votes in the class election – why would they, it’s a waste of time.  The “Bible Study Club” votes religiously, so to speak, year after year.  Who do you think gets the most funding? 

Now, if the Math, Physics, & Rationality Club got together and made a pact to all vote, they could get that funding they want.  But if they are disorganized enough, or large and spread-out enough, and can’t coordinate on a such pact (a collective action problem, hmmm), then they each have to decide to “waste their time” with just a tiny amount of hope that others also act contrary to their “rational” principles before anything changes.  “If we can’t coordinate, nothing will change,” they each say to themselves without coordinating.

But wait a second, nobody said the Bible Study Club coordinated, we just said they voted.  Maybe they’re also disorganized, large, and spread-out.  But they just don’t know or don’t care that it is “negative expected value” to vote.  They have this bizarre sense of civic duty and they just fill out a voting slip and place it in the box, year after year. 

If asked to model the individuals in these two clubs, there is a temptation to arrive at the label “Rational Losers” for the Math, Physics, & Rationality Club members and the label “Irrational Winners” for the Bible Study Club members. 

This post isn’t about the definition of “rationality” so much as it about recognizing that internal consistency doesn’t mean a model is “working.”  Here, we have a model that impacts what it is modeling. The Math, Physics, & Rationality Club votes based on its model, but doesn’t stop to appreciate the impact of that recursive element.  Let’s get to some examples of what I mean…

Voting Model I’ve Encountered that Fails to Address this Problem: “Given the initial conditions of people who think like me believing voting is irrational, and the people who think nothing like me feeling duty-bound to vote, it remains irrational to vote.  You can’t magically propagate your beliefs to the rest of the people who think like you, and you can’t magically change the initial conditions.” 

This is the challenge of collective action in a nutshell.  I’m not saying I have a solution for the short term (unless you count this blog post as my best attempt at a first step).  But it’s instructive to notice that we have overcome other collective action problems with negative initial conditions, through shifting the definition of rational behavior – through changing the model.

Do you feel duty-bound to recycle even if the expected value is opaque and the returns are tiny at the individual level?  Do you think your great-grandparents felt that way? 

Do you feel duty-bound to vaccinate your kids even if you don’t live in an area with other unvaccinated kids (meaning your kids are extremely, extremely unlikely to be exposed to the diseases you’re vaccinating against)? 

These are collective action problems in which there has developed an “irrational” duty at the individual level that results in collective rationality.  And whether you toggle your label for these activities from “irrational” to “rational” is less important than the fact that you vaccinate your kids.  You’ve internalized that winning is more important than clinging to yesterday’s model when that model impacts the behavior you’re modeling.

Again, forget the deep dive on the definition of rationality – who cares about one word – I’m here to win over the people saying “Not voting is simple.” or “Voting third-party in California is free, it’s that simple.”  It’s anything but simple if you care about actually, eventually, getting it right, not just thinking you got it right because you’re staring at an incomplete model.