There Is A Button

There is a button. Bright red.

The button is on a phone.

There is a screen.

There are rules.

Everyone knows them.

You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.

You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.

Time refuses to stop.

You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?

Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.

But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.

You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.


Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?

You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.

The button waits.

Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.

Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.

You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.

You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.

You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.

Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.

You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.

You do not live in a sane world.

Five lights, glowing in the night.

One button.

Five billion people.

All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.

There are procedures in place.

There are children in bed.

The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.

Could be a glitch.

Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.

You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.

You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”

You decide.

You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.

You don’t press the button.

The world doesn’t end that night.

It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.

The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.

Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.

You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.

The world keeps going.

For now.

Happy Stanislav Petrov Day

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics says that you can have a particle spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time – until you look at it, at which point it definitely becomes one or the other. The theory claims that observing reality fundamentally changes it.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

In 2010, New York randomly chose homeless applicants to participate in its Homebase program, and tracked those who were not allowed into the program as a control group. The program was helping as many people as it could, the only change was explicitly labeling a number of people it wasn’t helping as a “control group”. The response?

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”

On March 11th, 2012, the vast majority of people did nothing to help homeless people. They were busy doing other things, many of them good and important things, but by and large not improving the well-being of homeless humans in any way. In particular, almost no one was doing anything for the homeless of Austin, Texas. BBH Labs was an exception – they outfitted 13 homeless volunteers with WiFi hotspots and asked them to offer WiFi to SXSW attendees in exchange for donations. In return, they would be paid $20 a day plus whatever attendees gave in donations. Each of these 13 volunteers chose this over all the other things they could have done that day, and benefited from it – not a vast improvement, but significantly more than the 0 improvement that they were getting from most people.

The response?

IT SOUNDS LIKE something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

There wouldn’t be any scathing editorials if BBH Labs had just chosen to do nothing – but they did something helpful-but-not-maximally-helpful, and thus are open to judgment.

There are times when it’s almost impossible to get a taxi – when there’s inclement weather, when a large event is getting out, or when it’s just a very busy day. Uber attempts to solve this problem by introducing surge pricing – charging more when demand outstrips supply. More money means more drivers willing to make the trip, means more rides available. Now instead of having no taxis at all, people can choose between an expensive taxi or no taxi at all – a marginal improvement. Needless to say, Uber has been repeatedly lambasted for doing something instead of leaving the even-worse status quo the way it was.

Gender inequality is a persistent, if hard to quantify, problem. Last year I blogged about how amoral agents could save money and drive the wage gap down to 0 by offering slightly less-sexist wages – while including some caveats about how it was probably unrealistic and we wouldn’t see anything like that in reality. So of course less than a week after I wrote that Evan Thornley says :

“There’s a great arbitrage there, we would give [women] more responsibility and a greater share of the rewards than they were likely to get anywhere else and that was still often relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.”

While Mr Thornley said he wasn’t advocating that the gender pay gap should be perpetuated, he said it provided “an opportunity for forward thinking people”.

A number of online commentators, as well as Australian start-up blogs, have since said Mr Thornley’s comments were sexist.

Mr. Thornley improved on the status quo – but in the process he interacted the problem and was thus caught up in it. This is a strategy which, if widely embraced, would practically eliminate many forms of wage discrimination overnight simply by harnessing something we have way too much of already: greed. So of course it was denounced.

Last year the city of Detroit began to crack down on unpaid water bills, and thousands of poor people suddenly faced the prospect of having their water shut off. The vast majority of people did nothing to help them whatsoever. PETA did offer conditional help: If a family went vegan for 30 days, PETA would pay off their water bill, and throw in a basket of vegan food to boot. This was strictly more helpful than what 99.99999% of humanity was doing for Detroit residents at the time, as it didn’t make anything worse and offered a trade for anyone who valued 30 days of not-being-vegan less than however much they owed on their water bill. For marginally improving he situation instead of ignoring it, they were denounced as “the worst”.

Peter Singer has a famous thought experiment about a child drowning in a pond. I’ll let Philosophy Bro explain:

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.


What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

The difference is that the drowning child has been definitively noticed, and thus her moral weight bears down on us and we have to save her. But children thousands of miles away? Not noticed!

I think this might be where a lot of the discomfort with talking about things we can do to alleviate suffering comes from. If you implicitly believe in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, then to confront the scope of suffering in the world is to make it your fault, and then if you don’t throw everything you have at the problem you’re as “bad” as PETA or Mr. Thornley or Uber or BBH Labs.

But what if – what if noticing a problem didn’t make it any worse? What if we could act on a problem and not feel horrible for making it just a little better, even if it was an action that benefited ourselves as well? What if we said that in these instances, these groups weren’t evil – it’s okay to notice a problem and only make it a little bit better. If everyone did that, the world would be a vastly better place. If everyone “exploited” opportunities where they could benefit and alleviate people’s suffering at the same time, we’d all be better off.

Everyday Superrationality

You just can’t help yourself: whether it’s robbing banks or embezzling funds, crime is just your thing. Luckily, you have a partner who thinks just like you. Unluckily, you’ve both been apprehended by a team of crack detectives.

In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.
In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.

The Authorities make you an offer – and down the hall, you know your partner is hearing the same thing. Turn in your partner and you walk away scot-free while she’ll do five years behind bars. If you both rat out the other, you’ll get three years each. If you both keep quiet, you’ll both be out in six months.

She talks, you talk: She does three years, you do three years.
She talks, you stay quiet: She goes free, you do five years.
She keeps quiet, you keep quiet: She does six months, you do six months.
She keeps quiet, you talk: She does five years, you go free.

No matter what your partner chooses, it’s better for you to talk. So you’re going to tell the cops everything. Might as well – you have nothing to gain by staying quiet (did I mention that you don’t care about your partner at all? You suffer from Thought Experiment Induced Sociopathy. There’s a support group, they meet down by the trolley tracks.).

Anyway, you’re going to talk. And, you realize, she’ll do the exact same thing.

After all, you two think alike.

You two…think…alike.

…if you two really do think alike, then an outside observer would predict that both of you will make the same choice.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’s thinking the same thing right now.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’ll pick whatever you pick, even with no way to communicate, no matter what you pick. Because the process that’s driving your choice is the process that’s driving her choice.

…if you two really do think alike, you’re not choosing between talking and staying quiet – you’re choosing whether you’ll both do six months or five years.

…if you two really do think alike, then you can both be out of here in six months.

This is, of course, a silly toy example of a contrived situation that doesn’t actually happen to people ever.

Your friend has posted a kickstarter for a film Prisoners in Theory. You’d totally want to see this film if it came out! But do you want to back it? The Kickstarter says it if they get the money to make the movie, it will be released for free on YouTube. The other rewards for donating don’t interest you at all, you just care about the movie getting made. Realistically, you’re not going to donate more than $5. And what are the odds that that they Kickstarter will fall short by less than $5? Miniscule. And even if it is that close someone will pitch in the last few pennies. It’s definitely better for you to keep your money for other things and just wait and see whether or not the film gets funded. Either there will be enough like-minded fans to fund it, or there won’t be.

Some liberties were taken with the source material.

“Like-minded” – the words echo in your head. Something seems off – are you sure you made the right decision?

Maybe if you want there to be media for you to enjoy, you want the sort of people who enjoy that media to also be the sort of people who tend to pay for that media. When artists and writers are considering what to work on, you want them to look at the sorts of things you would like to see and think “If I make that, I can probably pay rent this month.”

Philip J. Fry, game theory expertPhilip J. Fry, game theory expert

Be the systemic change you want to see in the world.

It’s Election Day, and you’re pretty anxious about the ballot initiative #42 to recognize gay marriages as corporations that can legally sell medical firearms to immigrants. Should you bother to look up your polling place, catch a bus over there, and wait in line in a loud, poorly-lit gymnasium that smells faintly of bored teenager? The odds of a single vote mattering are so miniscule as to be indistinguishable from zero. Elections practically never come down to a single vote – so you can confidently say that the outcome will be the same regardless.

You're not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.
You’re not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.

The electorate will make the same decision, with or without you. Rationally speaking, voting is a waste of time, and there are so many other things you could be doing that you value more than a 0.00000001% chance to sway an election.

If your vote counted extra – if you got 5,000 votes – well, then, maybe it would be worth doing. Lots of elections are within a 5,000 vote margin. But you can’t, so you don’t.

You wonder how many other people feel the same way.

You notice that politicians seems to cater to the irrational people who vote as a block even though each of them could be doing better things with their time.

Maybe you should go. Maybe all of you – all the individuals who are sufficiently similar – should.

The question you have to ask yourself is: Do you feel superrational?

Well, do you, punk?
Well, do you, punk?

500 Million, But Not a Single One More

We will never know their names.

The first victim could not have been recorded, for there was no written language to record it. They were someone’s daughter, or son, and someone’s friend, and they were loved by those around them. And they were in pain, covered in rashes, confused, scared, not knowing why this was happening to them or what they could do about it – victim of a mad, inhuman god. There was nothing to be done – humanity was not strong enough, not aware enough, not knowledgeable enough, to fight back against a monster that could not be seen.

It was in Ancient Egypt, where it attacked slave and pharaoh alike. In Rome, it effortlessly decimated armies. It killed in Syria. It killed in Moscow.  In India, five million dead. It killed a thousand Europeans every day in the 18th century. It killed more than fifty million Native Americans. From the Peloponnesian War to the Civil War, it slew more soldiers and civilians than any weapon, any soldier, any army (Not that this stopped the most foolish and empty souls from attempting to harness the demon as a weapon against their enemies).

Cultures grew and faltered, and it remained. Empires rose and fell, and it thrived. Ideologies waxed and waned, but it did not care. Kill. Maim. Spread. An ancient, mad god, hidden from view, that could not be fought, could not be confronted, could not even be comprehended. Not the only one of its kind, but the most devastating.

For a long time, there was no hope – only the bitter, hollow endurance of survivors.

In China, in the 10th century, humanity began to fight back.

It was observed that survivors of the mad god’s curse would never be touched again: they had taken a portion of that power into themselves, and were so protected from it. Not only that, but this power could be shared by consuming a remnant of the wounds. There was a price, for you could not take the god’s power without first defeating it – but a smaller battle, on humanity’s terms. By the 16th century, the technique spread, to India, across Asia, the Ottoman Empire and, in the 18th century, Europe. In 1796, a more powerful technique was discovered by Edward Jenner.

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; The great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who led the efforts of those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

You are a member of the species that did that. Never forget what we are capable of, when we band together and declare battle on what is broken in the world.

Happy Smallpox Eradication Day.

What Almost Was

We’ve taken refuge in an unoccupied corner of the local ruins for the night. The water here seems clean enough for drinking, and I even jumped in myself for a bit, once I was sure the area was safe.

Sam’s not doing so well. They’re suffering from the sickness – growing weak, losing hair. My parents told me that that didn’t really happen before the end – that people got sick, but you could usually figure out the source; that there were vast buildings and dedicated, brilliant healers who could help you. But for Sam all we can do is get them some extra water and let them rest a bit more. I don’t know how much longer we can keep them with us, though, if we want to keep moving.

I heard a story – I’m not sure if it’s true – but I heard a story of a man from the east named Stanislav Petrov, who said that he could have stopped it all from happening. There was a country called Russia, one of the two great powers that ended the world, and they had appointed the man to watch for incoming attacks. The thinking, at the time, was that if each power threatened to destroy the world if attacked, everyone would be completely safe.

(I’m not sure I can believe all these stories. What kind of civilization would have vast structures dedicated solely to healing people *and* have their greatest powers decide that destroying the world is a way to stay safe?)

And Stanislav saw what could have been an attack, using the runes and powers afforded him. And it was his sworn duty to report what he saw, so that the rulers could make good on their promise to end the world in the name of safety. He says, I’m told, he now says that he considered keeping the information to himself, to report that he had seen no attack and that everything should just continue on as before – but that he ultimately could not disobey the orders he had sworn to follow. He comforted himself with the thought that he had only done what he promised, what was right, and that whatever happened next would be someone else’s fault. And so the era of the civilizations ended, and lives beyond measure were lost.

I wonder, sometimes, what life would have been like if he hadn’t done that. If he simply lied to his superiors about the runes, so that the world could continue. I wonder what it would be like i there were still whole buildings full knowledgeable healers, and clean water that could manifest inside your home. If the people of that world would ever realize that their continued dream-like existence was enabled by this one man’s lie. If they learned of it, how would they celebrate it?

As I dream, I imagine a solemn day of silence, for what almost was. Or perhaps a day of reflection on the importance of defiance when it *really* matters. Or maybe just a day of celebrating their ongoing, charmed existence.

I don’t dream too long though. The days are getting shorter, and we have to make the most use of the light we have left. For that is the reality we live in, and not the dream world that almost was.

(Happy Stanislav Petrov Day)