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).  http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/09/28/ssc-endorses-clinton-johnson-or-stein/  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.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How I went from #NeverHillary to #MaybeHillary: My Internal Dialogue

What is below started as a piece setting forth and defending my position that game theory instructs us to establish a reputation in an iterated game.  But as I was writing this, I found arguments others had been making in my discussions with them creeping into my analysis as responses I would need to anticipate and rebut, but then staying at the front of my mind as possibly compatible with, rather than completely opposed to, the way I was viewing things.  In a very real sense, the conversations I was having changed my mind in a pretty radical way.  Below is a log of me putting the pieces together based on where I was combined with what people were sharing and what I viewed as the best alternatives.

On Elections & Game Theory & The Real World

You should be very skeptical of people who have simple answers to complex problems.  They may be right, but for the wrong reasons, and if you adopt those reasons you will be armed with the correct answer but not for long (situations change and what you're relying on won't generalize - that's what it means to be right for the wrong reasons).  When people say voting for Candidate X in the 2016 election is simple, it's a no-brainer, only a fool could get it wrong, some of those people are right for the wrong reasons and others are wrong for the wrong reasons (after all, I didn't say which candidate they support), but all of them are wrong for oversimplifying a very complex decision.   They are wrong in a way that will produce the wrong answer if applied to a different election, even if they're right in 2016.

The Things the “This is Simple” Folks Likely Aren’t Considering:

Everything is Iterated: Voting and Rationality

Researchers have performed the following experiment, called the ultimatum game, where, for example, researchers give Player A $50 but on one condition: Player A must offer Player B a portion of the $50 (in whole dollar increments), and only if Player B accepts the offered split will either player walk away with any cash.  There is a vast literature full of variations, but in the most basic version, it is said that if both Player A and Player B are “rational maximizers” then Player A will offer to give $1 and keep $49.  After all, Player B is now faced with a decision between $1 and $0, and thus “should” accept the $1.  Accepting $1 is said to be a “dominant” strategy over rejecting and getting $0 – it results in a better outcome every time.  Since accepting $1 is dominant, so is offering $1, since that results in the biggest gain ($49) for Player A. 

Real life Players A usually offer more than $1 and real life Players B usually don’t accept $1 when offered.  These players, despite being easy to find, are ridiculed as “irrational” by some researchers and observers. 

In a different variation, the players will do the same exercise twice instead of once, and they know this fact.  Playing more than once introduces the concept of an “iterated” game.   Even with only 2 events rather than 1, the incentives have changed somewhat.  An offer of $1 in Game 1 still gives Player B the choice between $1 and $0, but there is now almost everyone agrees there is a “rational reason” to punish Player A for such a small offer.  Player B may establish, as a rational strategy rather than as a “mistake,” a reputation as someone who doesn’t accept offers she perceives as unfair.  If these players are to play more than twice, these reputations become increasingly important relative to the $1, or $10, in play in the particular game that is going on. 

As with any experiment, the hardest part is figuring out how the results relate back to the real world.  Why do most people instinctively feel that rejecting “unfair” offers is a valid strategy that feels better than $1 feels.  Why does the supposedly dominant strategy not seem intuitively dominant?  Because in the real world, nearly everything is iterated.  We live in communities, we have reputations in our communities, and our intuitions seem to have evolved (culturally if not biologically – and results do vary across cultures) to understand that the non-iterated game where your reputation doesn’t matter is the very rare exception, not the rule.

Before we move on, there is one more variation I want to mention. Like I said, the literature is vast, and I am presenting only the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg here, the parts that will be relevant later.  One thing I learned from the blog Less Wrong is that changing the stakes can change our intuitions.  People who reject the $49-$1 split might not reject an offer to split $50 billion $49billion-$1billion, or an offered split of 49 million doses of life-saving medicine to 1 million doses (where a rejected offer means no medicine is manufactured at all) if an evil dictator decides to be Player A.  I would say two things are happening here, the first is that these don’t feel like scenarios that are likely to be iterated, and we can pick up on that intuitively.  Indeed, if you set up the iterated version even in the thought experiment, the intuitions start to shift (“well, the next offer the dictator will make if I accept this is 1 million more doses or even less, so I can perhaps save more total lives by rejecting – I need to at least consider that.”).  Second, the offers feel less “unfair” because the smaller pile is still so significant.  This will be important later as the stakes in the real world are often larger than $50.  

Note on using Game Theory to “model” real life decisions.  Decisions in the real world are complex and most of the important ones won’t have numbers like $49 or $1 attached, and if you try to attach a number, but add disclaimers that the numbers are imprecise, based on certain assumptions that are clearly flimsy, etc., you run a pretty serious risk of trying to make what you’re doing seem more precise than it is.  But, I still believe we can model things and learn from the models and even compare outputs, using natural language and intuition.  So if I say you can model housing stipends at tech companies as a kind of “arms race” or certain negotiations as a “game of chicken” I am drawing on game theory for a natural language way to express a pattern of decision incentives and constraints, drawing on our intuition and experience in how to navigate them.  I don’t mean a model that outputs the correct dollar amount of the ideal housing stipend or the precise place the negotiation should land – those would be different kinds of models. 

Presidential Elections – An Iterated Game

If you openly support Gary Johnson or especially Jill Stein, people will politely or not-so-politely inform you that you are making an irrational choice. In fact, a dominated choice.  In the case of a progressive who supports Stein, you are told that you can choose to make it slightly less likely that Trump gets elected, or you can choose to have no impact, and thus sucking it up and voting for Hillary is dominant – it accomplishes a small something rather than nothing.  Sound familiar? 

And as you might expect, I reply that elections are an iterated game.  Every four years, we get a new “offer” from the two major parties and a few side players like libertarians and greens. 

Our reputation for accepting or declining unfair offers is public, and it does impact the candidates (the offers) we get in future election cycles.  In each election cycle, major and minor parties (and the media that covers them) have to decide who they want to hitch their wagon to.  And they all have analysts trying to predict who is “electable,” which issues matter, which positions are too risky to add to the platform, and a host of similar choice along the same lines. 

Even if these party leaders, media members, and analysts don’t know how Matt Sperling voted last election, they certainly can and will look up how many people voted independent.  My vote is counted.  Maybe I stay home on election day.  They look at turnout, they analyze those numbers.  My vote is again counted, though less precisely. The choices that leaders and advisors have to make will be made in a way that tries to “capture” a winning number of votes and they will use past elections to model how people are likely to behave this time.  This happens all the time.    

Stein and Johnson voters are establishing their reputation in an iterated game.  They are declining the unfair offers of Trump or Clinton.  Critically, the offer has only gotten this bad because so many people have established a reputation for playing a “non-iterated” strategy of accepting poor offers.  If you accept $1 in Game 1 of the iterated version, what is to stop Player A from offering $1 again in Game 2 or an even lower minimum if one is permitted? 

The Things I Was Glossing Over Before I Forced Myself to Advocate for Them as an Exercise:

“But Trump is so bad, this feels like a non-iterated game – he might start World War III or appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court for life!”  The elephant in the room.  The “Trump is so much worse!” argument has a ton of intuitive appeal.  Yet my model in the first part of this post hardly considers it.  That’s an indicator that I needed to stare at this pretty hard and consider whether my model really shouldn’t just have an input for just how bad the other candidate is.  The next exchange (hypothetical as I argue with myself, but you’ll see I surprised myself with which side won the argument!) was instructive:

I forced myself to come up with game theory reasoning for a Hillary vote, to test my reasons against, and then to rebut those rebuttals, etc., here is a summary of the resulting exchange I had with myself (and I didn’t figure this all out by pure introspection but from discussions with others plus introspection, and I present the introspection piece here for review as a clean summary of what I found persuasive on each side):

(“Matt B” - the part of my brain playing Devil’s Advocate): By voting third party based on a model that is agnostic as to how bad Trump is relative to Hillary, you’re not ‘rationally rejecting a low offer’ as you claim, you’re irrationally defecting from a collective strategy of voting along party lines.  Political parties are coalitions of voters trying to avoid the collective action problem of 100 people with 100 different sets of preferences all voting for 100 candidates.  How exactly to compromise is an incredibly tricky problem, but coalitions of voters that align on at least the big picture issues or big picture approaches to the big issues, is a solution that we’ve landed on with the 2 major parties.  When to defect from the coalition becomes thus not simply a question of “is this an iterated game, can I impact future elections with a better vote?” but rather comparing that good to the harm of defecting.

In a winner-take-all election, if one side of the political spectrum forms stronger coalitions of voters than the other side, that side threatens to win every election.  Voting along party lines is a cooperative effort to not let the other side win every time by having a stronger coalition. 

(Matt A responds): If my coalition is advancing agendas not just slightly misaligned with my values but in direct opposition to them (just to make up some hypotheticals - say the party defrauded its members by supporting one candidate in the “neutral” primary season or the winning candidate in the primary is pretty clearly captured by special interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo under the guise of fake progressivism - again just to make up a hypothetical), then why are you even participating?  And intuition about what to do is once again instructive – people in fact stop participating and voter turnout drops in these contexts.  You need a line in the sand somewhere for when to defect and not participate in the coalition.   

(Matt B): Well, I do have a line for when to leave, the line for when to leave the coalition is when your candidate is worse than the other coalition’s candidate (in which case abandoning has no cost or even has positive effect), or at the very least when the costs of the coalition failing are not so severe that they overshadow the future gains of establishing a reputation for declining unfair offers. 

(Matt A): But this level of fealty to the coalitions will lead (and has lead) to a death spiral of two increasingly bad candidates on issues that can be captured by special interests.  Your model doesn’t account for getting out of this death spiral.  You need a better way out than “their guy is better, cool I'll switch!” as “their guy/gal” will consistently suck from your vantage point - almost by definition of how the coalitions were formed in the first place.

(Matt B): Oh but I do have a way out, since I am a Strongman living in your imagination, I can make my model incorporate yours if I want to.  I’m not saying you should always cooperate with the collective effort to stop the other guy.  I’m saying you take the output of your model for impacting future election cycles with your reputation (as someone whose vote cannot be captured easily), and compare that to the output of the model that says cooperate no matter what.  Cooperation has an expected value, and so does your reputation.  You then vote the higher expected value.  You formed your model for navigating an iterated election process in defiance of everyone saying the coalition (party) voting model was the whole story, but you went too far.  You are right that too often, the party-lines folks are not even engaging with the tradeoff and trying to navigate it.  But neither are you.  There are two collective action problems here we can effectively think about and informally model, and it is imperative that we model both. 

(Matt A): I see what you are saying and it makes sense.  This would also allow me to get the relative value of the two candidates into my new model (the combined model) as an input, which makes intuitive sense if you consider that our goal is total utility, i.e. being Game Theory Optimal (actual) not just being Game Theory Optimal (incomplete model).  Before, I could feel myself wanting to not have an input in my model for relative strength of the candidates, and thus avoid the "Trump is so awful though" STOP SIGN in some people’s thinking.  But I cannot in good faith construct my own equal and opposite STOP SIGN to my own thought process that says “don’t carefully consider what the inputs to your model should be and which inputs feel intuitively wrong to exclude, think first about which inputs will help you win your argument.” 

Quick question for you Matt B, what if the coalition leaders used corrupt tactics to bias the coalition electorate, or what if the coalition candidate isn’t all that truthful and you feel others are being tricked, should that matter? 

(Matt B): It does matter, as your “should I establish a reputation for not putting up with bullshit” model’s YES output increases as the amount of bullshit increases.  It just can’t be the end of the analysis, you still have to compare that output to the costs of defecting from the coalition.  You were right that the "I always vote along party lines" people need a line in the sand, but you were wrong about how to draw it.  

(Matt A): Okay, I think we have a framework.  We better discuss that line and come up with a decision on how to vote this year…

(To be Continued)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My 2016 Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame Ballot

I would describe this year in two ways: no quantitative slam dunks, and 2 qualitative slam dunks (Owen Turtenwald and Yuuya Watanabe).

I am not a statistician who was given a vote solely for my quantitative skills, so I can't ignore the qualitative feel, but I also want to cast not just a reactive ballot but an informed ballot.  So I find myself narrowed to two ballots that align with my general approach: 1) [Ballot Intentionally Left Blank], and 2) Owen & Yuuya.

Voting someone who doesn't belong is a bigger mistake than not voting someone who belongs, but when I think about Owen and Yuuya I just don't believe the risk of these being players who don't belong is very high.  Playing at or near the top (not top LEVEL but straight top) of the world for years and years is something that Hall of Famers are made of.  Leave all that "he loves the game!" crap behind, these two were some of the toughest opponents in multiple years, multiple formats, and multiple ways.  Even on a bad day, these guys didn't give you much you had to go take it.  My A Game never matched their A Game and their C Game, well, I probably couldn't even tell it apart from their A Game.

Notes on others: Heezy - I love the guy but if Arnost Zidek or Mitamura had his career I wouldn't think twice here and I owe it to everyone to try and be somewhat objective.  4 top 8s with a win is nice but if it was that simple the requirements would be hard-coded.  Can't do it.

Floch/Seth - Gotta stretch results out a bit, prove you can do it for an extended period of time.  They might enough for a Rich Hagon e-book though.

Justin Gary/Scott Johns/Saito etc: No need to have same discussions year after year when the crowd has spoken and the resumes have not changed.  The hall is too big to accommodate people who don't make an impression their first couple times on the ballot if nothing changes, unless they were very close and you never took a hard look the first time.  If people were dicks or angle shooters or whatever I won't be the most qualified to opine but I see no need to revisit every single year.

Marin Light Beer - See Herberholz above.  Where the stats are borderline and Zac Hill writes about how the person was a master I'm a mortal lock to not vote for them.  Hipster-master != actual master.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Platinum Pro Club Changes, Corporate Greed or Legal Mandate? (Both?)

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, announced last week that the benefits awarded to its Pro Players Club members would be cut for the 2016-2017 season.  One of the most critical benefits (critical at least to those players trying to live up to the “Pro” in the “Pro Tour” name) was a $3,000 cash appearance fee at each of the four Pro Tour stops for Platinum players.  This appearance fee was slashed by $2,750 and is now a $250 reminder of the good ol’ days.  A replica (not to scale) of a Platinum Player Appearance Fee.

I am in some ways qualified to discuss this from the impacted player viewpoint, and in some ways not.   I am currently one of about 30 players enjoying the $3,000 Platinum appearance fee, but I am not tracking very closely towards Platinum again for the 2016-2017, and perhaps most importantly, Magic is not my day job as it is for several of my friends and colleagues in the Platinum player’s club.  (By the way, the Hall of Fame appearance fee of $1,500 per Pro Tour is also being reduced – it will now occur at a single Pro Tour each year, not every Pro Tour).

I want to first discuss my conspiracy theory (of which I’ve convinced myself, but that’s the easy part), then the decision to cut benefits itself, then the timing of the decision, with an aside on legal action against Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary. 

Is this All Motivated by a Desire to Undermine the Claim that (Some) Players Are Employees?

I don’t think it puts too much tinfoil on my head to note that the timing of this announcement relative to the lawsuit claiming Magic judges are employees of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is interesting.  Also, the announcement itself focused on shifting the goals away from trying to support professional Magic players, who presumably would then be acting in many ways at the direction of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, in order to earn a living. 

It is possible that because of the judges’ suit, an employment/labor attorney was forced to come in and look at not just judges but other 1099 independent contractors and they said, “Uh oh, here we have a program with not only the function but even the stated intent of creating professional, full time players.  Who decided the company wanted to do this and what is his or her phone number?”  If that kind of analysis is what led to the decision, a change has to be made and announced, but you can’t announce that you’re attempting to reduce future liability for wages & benefits where you might have past or present liability … so what do you announce? 

Maybe you announce that “The appearance fees we awarded for Platinum pros were meant to assist in maintaining the professional Magic player’s lifestyle; upon scrupulous evaluation, we believe that the program is not succeeding at this goal, and have made the decision to decrease appearance fees.

Instead, we will be increasing the amount of prize money awarded at our biggest tournament of the year: The World Championship.”

You revise the Worlds payout structure to create both a positive smokescreen and a sensible use of the available funds. 

The HOF appearance fee reduction doesn't fit neatly into this story, but that's exactly what they wanted you to think when they came up with it.  Okay, I should probably go to sleep - will write the rest in the morning. 

The Decision to Reduce Appearance Fees

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is the embodiment of everything I hate about corporations.  It has become not just interested in quarterly earnings, but myopically focused on the trailing few quarters and the targets for the next few.   It is the owner and supposed warden of an important part of my life and culture, but it is constantly willing and able to make trade-offs against my interests in favor of its own.  As KFC has protected the institution of wholesome dinner for working families, Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, has looked over trading card gaming for competitive players.  

This analogy runs fairly deep.  Nobody has to enter a Magic tournament or eat a bucket of fried chicken, and indeed, each year, more evidence emerges that doing neither is a good idea. 

The great bridge in corporate strategy between Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, and the rest of the worst of corporate free trade is the shortcut.  Why scale tournament prizes to keep pace with profits when you can just keep them flat and show a bigger margin in the short term?  Ask the Colonel: if they keep buying the chicken with the cheap ingredients, why use the healthy version?  Why fund a headline grabbing (by 2001 standards I guess) prize pool in the World Championships by increasing the total budget for organized play when you can just cut some benefits elsewhere?  Shortcuts. 

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, claims that the appearance fee was intended to support players making a living off the Pro Tour, but that it wasn’t accomplishing that goal.  It must be the goal that has changed, since nothing in the announced changes helps professional players earn a living from year to year with any consistency.  Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is free to change its organized play goals, but all the evidence suggests that they barely know what they want to accomplish with organized play, let alone how to achieve it.

I keep going back to that in my mind: Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, barely knows what it wants to accomplish with organized play, let alone how to achieve it.  If the goal is to scale viewership and community on Twitch, hire a real team to produce that content and don’t let Blizzard hire Brian Kibler to commentate every major event for your primary competitor.  If the goal is to allow aspiring competitive players to rationalize spending way too much money and an unhealthy amount of time on your products, build trust with those players instead of constantly undermining it (see timing section below for more).  If the goal is to grab a few headlines when major tournaments happen, then try to hold those tournaments on the same scale, relative to your sales levels, as the gaming tournaments it competes with for headlines.

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, has always been, and likely always will be, a group of talented game designers plagued by visionless leadership, incompetent and overly risk-averse legal strategy (of course with blind spots where it really might matter like whether Judges are employees – being conservative doesn’t guarantee conservation), sister and parent offerings that lose money (preventing proper reinvestment into what’s working – Magic), and a corporate culture of hindsight bias and myopia that observes growing sales but doesn’t even start evaluating how much more they could have been growing until a competitor comes along and punches them awake. 

When measuring the progress of Magic as a product in Q1 2016, don’t be content to compare to Magic in Q4 2015, show me how you’re tracking against Q1-2016-Alternate-Universe-A -B and -C in which the game isn't inhibited by a failing online version, isn't held back by weak organized play support that doesn't scale with the growth of the game, and/or doesn't advertise via an embarrassing offering on Twitch.  What Magic earns Hasbro is a fraction of what it could earn them, what it should earn them.  Blizzard filling some of the gaps was supposed to wake these people up, but maybe this wasn’t an “asleep at the wheel” situation but a “doesn’t know how to drive” situation.

Long story short, the decision to gut support for the career player itself did not surprise me.  They are entitled to try different incentive structures for their players in the competitive gaming landscape, and they will in fact try new ones.  And they will do it in the same old frustrating way, as an industry laggard on everything but the product itself holding back a leading (and still best) product.  They will continue to succeed, at an immeasurably fractional rate relative to their potential, despite themselves, and they will call it an obvious success.

The Timing of the Decision to Cut Appearance Fees

Even though I got to enjoy $3,000 appearance fee checks in 2016, I earned them in 2015.  The players who earned them in 2016 have had the rug pulled from under them since their investments of time and money in 2016 are unrecoverable and (for now) it looks like the payoff has been nerfed.  PokerStars recently did the same thing to its players, and the backlash there was something Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, probably didn’t consider or understand.

Here is how it should work: when a company says, “Do X in period 0 and we’ll give you Y in period 1,” the company should budget for Y in period 0 and then keep their promise in period 1.  Maybe accounting rules say you can put Y in the 2016 budget.  Maybe the law says you can break the promise (see below), but this isn’t the way a mature company worthy of trust from its customers should act, if it cares about preserving that trust and continuing to appear mature.

These players deserve the money they earned.  I don’t care if it helps them survive as a professional player or pay taxes on 2016 earnings they used to get by, or if they use it to figure out what to do next with their life, or if they give it to charity like Jon Finkel probably does.  They earned it, it’s their money.    

For the players’ part, when a company acts in an untrustworthy and immature manner, you have to simultaneously adjust your expectations and withhold your full support.  Ask the PokerStars pros if they hold that company in the same regard, provide it with their full support, or feel comfortable tying their livelihood to its existence and success.

Quick Aside: Legal Analysis of Whether Players Could Successfully Sue Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary for Breach of Contract or Promissory Estoppel

Every Reddit thread on any change a company makes will inevitably include a claim that the company can be or should be sued.  I’m sure on /r/SoupCanCollecting when Campbell’s changes the shade of red on its soup cans someone posts “IANAL, but can’t collectors just sue them?” 

I already said above that a labor & employment case on behalf of Pros is possible, but costly and not even likely to succeed.  A case against Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, for breach of contract or promissory estoppel (a fancy term for essentially breaking a promise you made that you knew or should have known others would reasonably rely on), has several issues that in my view are fatal to the players’ cause.

For as long as I can remember, descriptions of the Players Club benefits have been accompanied by a reservation of rights, the right to change or revoke the benefits at any time.  This language makes it difficult to claim that the promise of these benefits a few lines of text away could be reasonably relied upon in an actionable way, whether contract or quasi-contractual theories are invoked.  Wizards legal is bad, but they did repeatedly pepper us with the right disclaimer in the right place on this issue.  

Few things in law are truly open and shut, so of course there is a chance it could be found the other way, but it would have to be litigated to find out and when the class of potential plaintiffs is ~30 people and the dollar amount per claim is $11k or whatever, that dog just won’t hunt. 

Where Do the Pro Players Go from Here?

Somewhere else perhaps.  But even if we learned that Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary doesn't need us, some of us may need it.  The game is fun, the community is great (the ecosystem of many communities actually, fuck off with that Community Super League appropriation), and only 30 of us were platinum anyway.  Maybe this is getting a little overblown, I respect that take.  And I suspect Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, will back off the timing component of the decision and make the new benefits effective 2017-2018.  I suspect this because the backlash has been much larger than the dollar amounts are.  As described above, Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is a greedy hellscape of myopic corporate pragmatism, and I predict they do the now seemingly pragmatic thing on the timing issue.

If they don’t back off the timing of the change, I suggest all current Platinum Pros, myself included, coordinate in order to boycott PT Sydney and to prepare and present counter-programming against its broadcast that weekend on Twitch by having top Magic pros learning and streaming other TCGs.  For me, at 28 points with a few GPs coming up, there is a very good chance that skipping Sydney would cost me Gold (and a shot at extending my last-PT-of-the-year top 8 streak and making Platinum, which used to be different than Gold by the way).  As a community of top players, we don’t have many high-powered tools to push back with and we have no such tools which involve zero personal sacrifice.

However, assuming things go as predicted and this is walked back to a 2017-2018 change, that gives professional players a couple years to figure out how to downshift into “hobbyist who pursues the World Championship but not at the expense of everything else” or find something else entirely to spend time and money on (Hearthstone, HexTCG, or even, gasp, personal or professional pursuits outside of gaming). 

Attempting to unionize or sue for back pay on a, based on my best guess, fairly thin but not entirely unprecedented definition of “employee” seems likely to kill the Pro Tour at the same time it consumes a bunch of time, energy, and money of the players involved.  But if the players who did attempt to make a living at Magic feel entitled to unionize or to seek back pay I would support their efforts.  Nothing in this post shall be construed as an admission or waiver, express or implied, of any of the author’s rights under the NLRA, WA or CA state law, or otherwise. 

The one thing none of us should do for several years is trust Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, to act with integrity or respect towards the community of entrenched competitive players.  Some individuals working there certainly want to do right by the players and support them, but if you’ll allow me to return to my favorite analogy, people at KFC merely wanting you to stay healthy doesn’t get it done in a corporate culture that either renders them powerless or incentivizes them to do the opposite while keeping up appearances.   

Aaron Forsythe recently tweeted that Greg Leeds, who resigned as President of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, “went out on top.”  On top of what, a steaming pile of shit?  Now we have received an indication of where to set our expectations for new President Chris Cocks.  I wish him luck in stopping the hemorrhaging of market share to Blizzard’s Hearthstone.  Unfortunately, Magic’s organized play won’t be helping the cause.  Not with this approach or at this scale. 

Take care,
Matt Sperling.

Twitter @mtg_law_etc is a better place to converse than the comments below if you want me to read and maybe respond.  Someone should also post this on Reddit so we get the free expert legal advice that's easy to find there. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pro-Level Draft with DFCs

This is our 3rd time drafting with Double Faced Cards (DFCs).  The first, Innistrad block, went okay, but it had some issues that always bothered me.   Those issues came home to roost in Magic Origins draft (with 5 mythic DFCs).  And I’ll like to see these issues discussed and possibly corrected before the third dance.

I believe things work fine as is at low stakes.  Drafting at home, drafting at FNM, fine.  But in a super competitive or professional-level setting, there are real issues:

1) Asking players to keep their eyes forward (so as to not be able to see, or appear to have seen, the normal cards people are drafting), while simultaneously scattering a bunch of tempting “public” information around the table is asking two incompatible things of the players.

A Jace was opened in one of my Pro Tour drafts and I had no idea whether I was allowed to track it as it went around the table.  Was it cheating to look while my neighbor had cards in his hand?  Was it cheating to look between picks when the cards were laid out?  This was never made clear.  I ended up using “the corner of my eye” to look at the top card of my neighbor’s draft pile once that neighbor had selected a card.  Was this cheating?  I sure hope not, but I really don’t know.  Could I have looked 2 people over between picks and gotten more info?  I don’t know.

2) Even bigger than that first large issue: It makes the timing of when you select a card hyper-relevant.  I want to wait until my neighbor picks a card, and he or she wants to do the same to me (and our other neighbors, etc.).  With two DFCs per pack in SOI [EDIT: between 1 and 2 per pack], the upcoming set, the odds of a first-pick DFC is super high.  So to maximize the impact of the info I can get (whether legal or illegal to look, people will look), I should wait as long as I can.  How long can I wait?  Well, theoretically my neighbor and I both have to draft a card simultaneously immediately when the called says “Draft” but that is laughably unenforceable and rife for opportunities to shoot the angle better and get an edge.

This is a major problem.  If people didn’t realize they should wait to take a card in Innistrad, they will realize now that every pack has 2 DFCs.  Really surprised me to see on Twitter than Matt Tabak and Toby Elliot (two people who I respect a great deal and who don’t miss much) don’t even have it on their radar. 

Proposed solutions:

1) Use checklist cards in professional level drafts.  Cleanest, best solution.  No chance of hidden costs.  Has the obvious cost of losing the “cool” feel of drafting with DFCs, and another cost of making practice difficult, but those are known costs at least. 

2) Permit looking around between picks.  Allow 3 seconds for this.  To prevent the timing issue related to peeking, come up with a way players can cover cards as they select them, and only reveal during the “look around” 3 seconds.  Drafting player covering their pile with their hand is one way, have a tool that covers the pile like a small tent which you can slide picks under and then lift to reveal is another.  

If neither solution is adopted, life will go on, but we may end up playing a “don’t flinch!” Pro Tour where players are waiting to see their neighbor’s card before selecting their own in a cascading effect.  Players might also be penalized for looking around OR not penalized for looking in directions where they could see hidden information, both disasters at the pro level. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Underlying Sin of Proxygate and Leakgate: Using the WPN and DCI as Hit Men

In separate clarifications/apologies, Wizards of the Coast has walked back a little bit from its initial position on both Sharpie-on-card = proxy [edit: Counterfeit, we all agree they are proxies] & the penalties issued to those judges that knew or could have known about spoiler leaks but didn’t tell Wizards about it. 

Neither clarification/apology backs down from the most troubling aspects of the issues though: Wizards’ willingness to use the WPN and the DCI to enforce corporate policy very loosely related to the mandate of those organizations, and its legal team’s repeated failures to locate the balance between protecting IP and not harming marketing and business interests.  The lawyers don’t understand or can’t work within the nuance that exists in both the market and the legal landscape, and the mouthpieces outside the legal team like Trick Jarrett, Helene Bergeot, and Elaine Chaise are able to sort-of find the mark, but only after they are able to review a swath of negative public reactions to their initial remarks in order to locate exactly where and how badly they missed.  

All together, this group has inspired so much fear in our community that I have people messaging me saying essentially, “Maybe you should avoid poking that bear with negative commentary or jokes, their legal team could fly off the handle at any time and their business team clearly can’t stop them.”  I can’t go public with the detailed examples of how the public discourse has been impacted by a fear of Wizards’ next overreaction, but you can trust me I’m not making this shit up.  Multiple people, multiple times, have expressed concern to me about where and when the shoe will fall next.  It is shaping behavior and discourse for the worse.  It sucks.

Here’s my take on the two recent issues that brought these issues into pretty sharp focus:

      The new Proxies Policy

Wizards recently announced to its WPN store locations that they may not run unsanctioned events with proxies, and later clarified that marker-on-card = a counterfeit card in their view.  Their explanation made little sense.  “Counterfeits” no one would mistake for real cards simply aren’t counterfeits.  That's what the word means.  

You can call a black spell “Devoid’ and say that makes it colorless.  It isn’t a good idea, it makes for a shitty set, but you can do it if you want.  You control the definition of the word Devoid in the game engine.  But you don’t control the definition of the word Counterfeit in the secondary card market.  You can’t just say cards no one would mistake for the original are counterfeits.  This type of overreach is typical of Wizards. 

I presume they would never actually sue someone for writing on their own toys with a Sharpie (unless they felt like lighting some money on fire), so they use the network of game stores (the Wizards Play Network or WPN), comprised mostly of struggling or very modestly profitable businesses, to exert their influence over a problem that wasn’t an actual problem.  Well done Wizards, some fantasy your bad lawyers dreamed up about a culture of counterfeiting being encouraged by proxies, or who knows what else, is now negatively impacting the entry point for older formats, an issue you claim to care about in countless Reserve List and Modern Masters articles. 

I wish the WPN, a part of the infrastructure of Organized Play, wasn’t the stage for Wizards to act out these fantasies, which leads me to….

      Banning people from competitive play for leaking Magic cards or not reporting leaks

The DCI shouldn’t be whacking people for Wizards like it’s a corrupt police officer with bad coke and gambling debts.  The DCI is a governing body for competitive play among hobbyists, not an intellectual property protection service.  Wizards, if someone violated your Nondisclosure Agreement and leaked your IP, take legal action and/or restrict that person’s access to information in the future.  Do your own dirty work within the frameworks that were set up to govern how the flow of corporate information is controlled.

Before you all get in the comments and shout “Playing Magic is a privilege, not a right!’ or “They are a private org, they can ban whoever they want,” just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  Just because you have leverage over people by virtue of controlling their hobbyist club, doesn’t mean it’s ethical to say “you can’t engage in your hobby anymore in this club because you didn’t inform on your friend when he violated a confidentiality promise you never made.”  That’s again, an overreach.  These are the actions of an entity that is armed only with a vague idea about which pieces of IP it needs to protect, and repeatedly burns the stables down to prevent anyone from stealing the horses.  

They have successfully disincentivized leaks by acting like Soviet Russia. “Inform on your friends and you might be spared” was explicit in the first round of announcements about the punishments and still very present even in the most recent Elaine Chase statement.   “Our Olympic athletes will do what is good for Mother Russia at all times, or they will not play.”  “Fear will keep them in line.”  I believe that last one was Grand Czar Tarkin, and I assume someone had to talk Trick Jarrett out of quoting it.

Learning about something confidential shouldn’t be a violation of anything within 10,000 miles of the DCI, especially if the person in question had no direct obligation to breach.  Being in a Facebook group where you have access to posts but don’t participate in the dissemination of information is “Possession of stolen property?”  Get real. 

The message here is that if they don’t like what you’re doing, they will use the WPN or DCI to put pressure on you.  I’d love to read an updated WPN or DCI mission statement that lines up with this role as mob enforcer. 

Again, the apologies they have issued (following outcry in the community) are statements to the effect of, “That guy/proxy-method didn’t deserve to get whacked I guess,” but they lack the realization that whacking people with your OP networks is a bad idea in the first place.