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.