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.

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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)

Person Space

Epistemic status: pretentious. What do you mean that’s not an epistemic status?

The space of all possible minds.

You move through it, slowly. Every moment your mind is slightly different. Sometimes it undergoes rapid change. “You” is the curve through mindspace being traced out as you live your life.

When you zoom out to see other people, your curve almost looks like a point.

If you could zoom out, or view it at all. Person space has many dimensions and probably doesn’t lend itself to a Euclidean interpretation.

You can project some features of person space into a lower-dimensional space, and notice that people form clusters, correlations among various characteristics. In one projection might see a binomial distribution, though not a binary, corresponding to gender. Not everyone is near a cluster. No one has to be. For the clusters we care about – human experience, empathy, emotion, hope – we’re all pretty tightly clustered.

You alone do not determine your path through mindspace. Environment nudges and tips you; genetics yank you around from the very beginning; neurochemistry alters your velocity and sleep deprivation may introduce a pseudorandom wobble.

And this is how I think about identity and labels and continuity of self and empathy and cooperating with past and future selves. It’s not a big insight, but its become so ubiquitious in how I think about everything involving people that it seems like a good idea to write it down. It seems obviously true, and is useful for me to resolve confusion when people talk about identity and labels and similar topics.

Anyway, that’s why my tagline is “Thoughts expressed by (time=t)!Jai may not reflect the thoughts of (time=t+n)!Jai as n→∞”

Zeno’s Discrimination

Pick a source of salary discrimination. For illustrative purposes, suppose that a left-handed person only makes $0.70 for every $1.00 a right-handed person makes doing the same job.

In a perfect world, this problem can get fixed by selfishness. I’ll premise this by saying that there are a lot of reasons this *wouldn’t* exactly work, but the basic idea might be worth exploring:

So FooCorp is paying lefties 70% of what they pay righties. You’re an amoral entrepreneur with no interest in justice or fairness – but you do want to break into the Foo business, and you’re planning to launch AppFoo, which takes all the things you love about Foo and makes it cloud social. You know that you’re going to need some experienced Foo professionals to get this off the ground, and you want to get it done as inexpensively as possible so you can spend your remaining gold on various other amoral pursuits (I dunno, superyachts? Robot sharks?). Then you remember: FooCorp is underpaying all those lefties! You invite all the lefties at FooCorp to come work for you at 80% of what the righties are making (gotta save that shark money) – still a big raise for them. Soon you’ve got all the lefties in the Foo industry at your command and AppFoo is a success, rapidly taking over the Foo market thanks in part to your lower labor costs.

Until iFoo comes along and offers all the lefties 90% of what the righties are making…FooFoo offers 95%…and soon handedness-discrimination is lost in the noise of an infinitesimal difference.

The point is, any time you see systematic discrimination, that’s a weakness on the part of the discriminators. Even if you don’t spend your evenings laughing maniacally as robotic sharks circle your superyacht, you can improve the world *and* damage discriminators just by being somewhat less discriminatory.

Disclaimer: An incomplete list of real-world things which would keep this from working perfectly, but not necessarily render it worthless: Labor costs are often a small fraction of business costs, and may not provide a significant advantage. Figuring out exactly how much people make is hard. People are often reluctant to change jobs for a lot of very good reasons, even if the new job offers better pay. Reality is not an Econ 101 textbook.