Getting the Right Answer, Winning the Game

Fascinating philosophical story in Janelle Shane’s book on AI “You Look Like a Thing and I love You”.

Programmers were trying to figure out the optimal strategy in a game of tic-tac-toe with an infinite board, and had programs play each other gazillions of times. It turned out the optimal strategy was to play your second x as far away from the first x as possible. This would cause the machine playing you (you are an AI too in this example) to crash trying to model that huge playing board, and you’d win by forfeit.

It made me think that if you took robots and gave them bodies and asked them to generate the optimal strategy for chess, it might turn out that the optimal strategy is to pick up your pawn, kill your opponent with it, and then place it on the board. Your opponent would forfeit the game due to death.

Is it the optimal strategy really? No! You’d go to prison. And this raises the interesting point that the purpose of chess is not to win. The purpose of chess is to have a good time, build a social relationship with the player, something like that.

And yet the notion that the purpose of chess is not to win is something it’s easy in our society to miss . I think that’s a contingent historical fact. We live in a world where certain people are rewarded for winning games (the game to make money, the game to make the prettiest picture) and are allowed to ignore the actual purpose of these activities.

This is true of test-taking also. People are rewarded for getting the right answer on the test. But sometimes the purpose of the test could be better served by giving a different answer, or no answer, or refusing to take the test, or helping everybody in your class get the right answer, so you all get a break.

It’s a similar illusion that comes from a similar social peculiarity — rewarding people for getting the right answer on tests, rather than living well and helping others to do the same.

It’s a bad thing. It’s an interesting example though of how what seem to be big philosophical talking points (eg “the facts don’t care about your feelings”) are actually philosophical mistakes, that follow from prejudices which follow in turn from contingent, not-so-great features of our society.


Doorbell Ditch

Ross was my best friend when we were in kindergarten. We played doorbell ditch. We played doorbell ditch at the creepy house. We rang the doorbell and ran away. Then we came back and rang it again. The door was opened a foot, the hand shot out, dragged Ross in. He didn’t come back. Ross’s parents called the police, people talked to me, but nothing doing, nothing was discovered. Ross’s face was on the milk. What happened? The witches got him, and the witches can talk using the “witch consonants” and befuddle the mind, so the police didn’t catch him. They kept Ross in the atelier and they fed him on the moth hormone; he grew the spineret and he made the cocoon and he came out, winged, fluttering cleaning the dishes from the long table in the hall after the ladies held their dark and terrible Esbat.

He snuck out and made it to our high-school graduation. Even well-brought up (or maybe especially well-brought up) people don’t like to talk to somebody who looks like that; what do you talk about? Do you ask the questions you want to know the answer to — what else did the witches do to you, Ross? — even if you also don’t want to hear them.

One of those things you want to know the answer to but you don’t want to go through the experience of asking and being told. One of those things life just has to teach you if you’re going to learn it, or you’ll never learn it. Or you could ask somebody.

Ross is actually a really nice guy. Studying to be a social worker. He will not let you say a bad word about the witches. When nobody is watching he flutters around the streetlamp, huffing and puffing, terribly embarrassed, but he knows what he wants.


Ram Babu’s Intelligent Insects

My boss Ram Babu at the old job would come up with fantasies about civilizations of intelligent insects, and tell them to us as a sort of treat. I had to mop the shed out back, and scrub the rusty tub until my hands really hurt, and then drag buckets of the blanching mixture from the old room where the tubs were, up the hill to the charging station too, and the blanching mixture made little sores in my hands and made me cough. We all slept together in the room where the heat coil passed through but it was really wet and you could barely sleep what with somebody hacking up phlegm or kicking you, or the little kids getting beat down by the big ones. It was awful. And then Ram Babu would come in and for a big treat for everybody would tell us a story. Like this one:

“So there is a kind of planet where there are aphids that make a special honey that the ants need to lay their eggs and the ants keep them in their underground chamber and drink the honey. And the aphids have their way of thinking about God and the ants have their way of thinking about God! But the aphids never know is their way of thinking about God, which is a beautiful way, really for their benefit, or is it just like their honey, a refined sweet that they were bred to produce for the enjoyment of their masters.”

There was a big sore in my wrist that some of the blanching mixture got in and it would never get better — it just got raw and worse, and it made it so I could not carry the buckets fast enough and then I would get the beat down which would make me go even slower. That was a horrible day! And that night when my teeth hurt, my eyes hurt, my balls hurt, and I had a fever and felt like throwing up, Ram Babu comes in and gives us an other treat. Another insect story.

“There is a planet where the intelligent life form are a kind of huge cockroach that live in balls for warmth when the planet’s elliptical orbit takes it far from the sun. And at the middle of these balls some of the cockroaches will live. And on the outside some of the cockroaches will die. And they believe that when the cockroaches on the outside freeze to death, then that is when they know God. But that is because they also believe that there are secrets written in their brains that they can only read when they die. And why do they believe that? It is a fungus infection caused by too much humidity when their planet gets close to its orange sun.”

God I loved killing Ram Babu, not just because I never had to deal with dragging that awful blanching mixture from the shed past that one time when I held him down in it. What I loved most about it was that never, ever again for as long as I lived would I have to hear one of his stories about insects.


Box Full of Nothing

Do you know about the Parisian ladies who lived to a ripe old age, the recipient of the attention (dinners, trips to Monaco) of the highest society in terms of money and culture and over-all fun people to be around, and lived in a fine apartment in the xy Arondissement, because in the middle of their apartment upon a fine Turkish rug, in an antique chest, was their inheritance, extremely valuable deeds and trusts from a captain under Napoleon who had prospered in the Russian campaign and married rich, and been bequeathed untold holdings in the Russian hinterland — dachas! fields! but not just that, mines! factories! the right to mine in Russia’s Central Asian hinterlands — and all their friends and well-wishers although they loved the now old ladies (they lived till 99) who were after all very nice and fun, they hoped to get some of the contents of that chest when they finally met their reward, and when the old ladies did, finally meet their reward, the eager friends who had made their course through life smooth as silk for now seventy-six years, opened the chest, and found it contained, nothing?

Who among us has gotten to this age and has not learned the art of varying a tale? You don’t need me to tell the opposite story, of the young man who upon coming across a chest in an old junkyard threw it away, and went on to poverty and misery and an early death, all because he threw it away, because what was in the chest was treasure — gold, jewels, and you know why not the right to mine in Central Asia that the old ladies promised lyingly, but which the young man in the story that you’re telling me now, because you sure don’t need me to take a story and flip it on its head — everybody knows how to do that these days, anybody with a brain — but was in the ignored chest in Truth?

You don’t need me to tell the story of the Two Boxes, discovered by the poor young girl who was Virtuous and the rich young man from a family of Cheats, which contain pieces of a Treasure, both of which are needed for it to be good, perhaps the first two pages of the deed to the saphire mine in Mongolia, and the last two, and these two lovers, star-crossed, doomed by society’s opprobrium, give it all up except for the two seemingly-worthless boxes and lo! when they opened them, together they were worth a mint!

Your brain is working in your head fine, you are not ill, nor suffering from a concussion, so you can ring the changes on the story of the Two Lovers and the Two Boxes, tragic — because of their flaws she throws hers away in misdirected pique or he does — or comic, she almost throws her away and the dog saves it (the dog! what a cutie!) and now they can eat pate and truffles and fudge and have little Monsieurs and Mademoiselles with their own boxes and adventures.

Late at night around the fire we will tell weirder stories, friends, how some people themselves were the boxes, how the soldier in Russia learned the story of the boxes from an ancient scroll, whole countries of people who had boxes and the boxes were the treasure, people who feel that life is a box and learning that life is no box because there is no inside or outside is itself the treasure inside the box, and we will alternate them all in all the ways our brains, which are healthy as a horse!, can do and have been taught to do, and learned to do.

But that is for the night, friends. Dawn is dawning. Let’s begin the day!


Abducted by Fairies

When we look back on the 3d milennium we find that human thought was ricocheting between life and death, folks afraid of death, folks who thought death would not be that bad. Problem was as always happens is they were obsessed with two possibilities. Didn’t realize there were three. The third was hinted at in stories of being abducted by fairies. They knew you’d be taken by fairies (or the UFO abductors!) and come back years later. They didn’t know sometimes the fairies steal you and bring you back a split second later, unchanged, but utterly changed. The third state, beyond life or death.

When three things are on the menu, the choice looks very different, Francisco!


In the Event of Human Imagining, A Dog and A Fish are Scared in the Night

In the event of human imagining, a storm with lightning is over the ocean at night. The dog is scared. The fish is scared. The dog is a seal. The fish is a seal. In the event of human imagining, the seal is a dog-fish, like a dog and a fish. The dog and the fish are scared in the night.

The sealness of the dog-fish is not the seal on a document or the seal on a moment that is “sealed upon the mind”. Nor is it the book of judgment with seven seals. No, the seal is an “unsealing” — from the dog-fish are separated The Two: Dog and Fish. A dog and a fish are scared in the night.

The nightness of the night is as dark as a midnight sun because the nightness of night does not speak to an absence of sun. If night were the absence of sun there would be no night, for we know from astronomy that the sun is always present. Night is not the night of astronomy. Night is the “nought” — night is the time of fear, when the dog and the fish are scared.

To be “scared” is to be a-scared or “as cared”. The dog and the fish care for each other. A dog cares for a fish, a fish cares for a dog, in their mutual care they are “sealed”.

They are seals.


The Pearl

I used to study with people who really cared. We’d get together in a conference room around a wooden table and really hash things out. Being. The Good. The Uncaused Cause. The Big stuff. We’d try to say what we thought, but if somebody thought something different, he’d say it. Or she’d say it. And if the person said something that wasn’t what the first person thought it would get them really emotional. They’d shake, they’d yell, they’d cry, they’d run screaming from the room.

For example. We were having a conversation about what is a pearl. And Jackie said “A pearl is a shiny secretion from a mollusc.” And Roberto said “If that were true then there could be pearls from other animals. Like there could be a pearl from a snail.” And Jackie said “There are. There is a kind of snail that makes pearls. It is called a meli meli.” And Roberto ran screaming from the room.

Of course we coaxed him back from the bathroom where he was weeping — we’re not animals!

Of course sometimes people faked it as if to say “I can run screaming from the room too! I care too!”

But in actuality every couple of moments somebody’s view of life would become so radically shaken and their sense of themselves so torn up that they would feel something deeper and better than shame and they’d burst into tears and run screaming from the room.

It makes you sensitive to the other ups and downs Trickster Dealer Life has in his deck for ya! If it’s not going to change my estimation of the value of a pearl, of what life is, of what is for a being to “Be” — then you think to yourself

“I got this!”