Lesson Time

This article is part of a series entitled Everyday Game Theory. See also:
1. The Escalator’s Dilemma; 2. Electoral College; 3. Passing Curiosity; 4. Lesson Time

This is (a slightly modified version of) a text message exchange which recently occurred between my violin teacher and me.

  1. Teacher: “Can we meet today instead of tomorrow?”
  2. Me: “That’d be great!”
  3. Teacher: “Cool, see you this afternoon.”
  4. Me: “Ok.”

It would not have been acceptable for me to fail to respond to my teacher’s message (1). If I didn’t respond, my teacher would have no way to know whether I ever received her message – and, hence, whether to come today or tomorrow.

Neither would it have been ok, for that matter, for my teacher to let the conversation end at message (2). Until I receive her confirmation (3), I can in no way be sure whether she has seen or acknowledged my message (2). In other words, with her message (3) unsaid, it could remain the case, for all I know, that my teacher, as yet unaware of my response (2), imagines me unaware of (1) and still intent to come tomorrow.

Even after I received my teacher’s message (3), though, it was important for me to send the further message (4). After all, until she receives my message (4), my teacher may well imagine me unaware of her message (3). In that situation — her thought process might go — I would, unaware of her confirmation (3), be liable to suspect her unaware of my response (2), and hence unsure of my receipt of (1), and so liable to come tomorrow.

Why doesn’t this continue? Continue reading


Tipped Off

I would have never thought that work as a hotel valet could be so exciting. I once heard wild stories about the night shift at a metropolitan hotel. “The cab ring is run by an Somalian named Ali,” one valet said. “His index finger was shot off in the Somali Civil War.”

The valets and the cab drivers have an arrangement. Whenever a hotel guest checks out and needs a ride, the valet calls Ali. Ali sends “one of his Somalian taxi drivers” to pick up the guest. In exchange for the referral, the driver slips the valet 10$. “It’s the most illegal thing ever,” the valet said. “We get death threats from the unions.”

I started wondering: What’s really going on in this transaction? Continue reading

Passing Curiosity

This article is part of a series entitled Everyday Game Theory. See also:
1. The Escalator’s Dilemma; 2. Electoral College; 3. Passing Curiosity; 4. Lesson Time

We were on I-80 Eastbound somewhere around Nebraska. It had just gotten dark. The large semi-trucks on the road – usually the highway’s peaceful, lumbering mammoths – seemed to be turning aggressive.

I moved to the left lane, preparing to pass a slower semi truck looming ahead on my right. Suddenly the red and yellow lights of a large truck appeared in my rearview. The truck was approaching behind me, at high speed, and pressuring me into the right lane.

Not one for confrontation – and, let’s face it, this was a Ford Taurus – I acquiesced, laying on the brakes and ducking behind the first truck, almost as if for cover. The newcomer blew past both of us.

“Man,” I said to Josh, shaking my head. It was clear to us that the speeding truck’s behavior had been unfriendly. But it wasn’t quite clear why.

A more peaceful moment on the highway.

A more peaceful moment on the highway.

Driving across the country – Josh and I just made the trip from Portland to Baltimore – one has time to think about many things. The above event, along with countless others, got us pondering how highway passing works. Passing behavior on the interstate, in fact, follows predictable and consistent patterns, and these patterns are somewhat complex. We concocted a game-theoretic account of passing behavior. Continue reading

Electoral College

This article is part of a series entitled Everyday Game Theory. See also:
1. The Escalator’s Dilemma; 2. Electoral College; 3. Passing Curiosity; 4. Lesson Time

This article is a response to the article Voting Cartels are Anticompetitive.

“How do you solve a problem like Ben Carson?”

Jim Rutenberg posed this question, in the March issue of the New York Times Magazine, before beginning an in-depth profile of the Republican presidential candidate and his role in the upcoming 2016 election. Though Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and an oft-called “outsider” [1] is not likely to be elected — as Rutenberg would have it — he certainly might disrupt the plans of the establishment Right. “A candidacy like Carson’s presents a new kind of problem to the establishment wing of the G.O.P.,” Rutenberg suggests. [2]

Ben Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, is seeking the Republican 2016 nomination for president.

Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, is seeking the Republican 2016 nomination for president.

The precise nature of this problem, though, depends on whom you ask about it. Ben Carson’s supporters might see things a different way. Negative claims about Carson’s electability – Rutenberg writes, for example, that “His chances of victory are miniscule” – could frighten Carson’s would-be supporters into the safer territories of the establishment. These threats could become self-fulfilling.

Ben Carson’s candidacy does exhibit a “problem”. The problem is unelectability. The solution is voter organization. Continue reading

The Escalator’s Dilemma

This article is part of a series entitled Everyday Game Theory. See also:
1. The Escalator’s Dilemma; 2. Electoral College; 3. Passing Curiosity; 4. Lesson Time

The key to surviving the Moscow subway system is what I might call the gruff grunt.

The underground subway car is packed; in ten seconds, the doors will close, and by that I mean close. Simply plant your shoulder squarely into that of the stranger in front of you, and emit a low noise of affirmation. Venture a nod of the head if this stranger deigns to crane his neck backwards. He’ll then grunt back, and plow his way further into the crowd. “Осторожно: двери закрываются.” (“Caution: doors are closing.”) We’ve made it this time.

One also must navigate. Ride the escalator upwards, away from the platform, and proceed through a long marble hallway – past that row of inexplicable shops (why are they camped in the subway?) selling “goods” ranging from cigarettes to bras – and then take the stairs downward, precisely two levels, to finally transfer from the orange line to the light-blue line. Just don’t continue further to the dark-blue line. (The simultaneous presence of the two blues might seem confusing to us English speakers, but Russian uses distinct words for the two colors – chalk up a victory for Sapir-Whorf – and, in any case, the subway lines’ Russian names are streets, and have nothing to do with the colors that the informational signs, and we Americans, use to represent them.)

But to survive the subway’s escalators? To survive the Moscow subway system’s escalators requires much, much more. Continue reading

The Adblock Dilemma

The other day, I loaded a video on YouTube, and was met with a 20-second advertisement.  “You don’t have Adblock?” my friend asked, astonished.  “You gotta download it.  Gets rid of ads,” he said, as if it were that simple.


Adblock users won’t see this!

Sure, if my friend uses Adblock, YouTube won’t notice, and he gets to avoid ads.  But what happens if everyone uses this logic?

  1. A significant portion of YouTube users—say, 10 percent—download Adblock.
  2. Advertisement vendors realize that their ads aren’t reaching as many people.  So, they’re not willing to pay as much to have their ads shown.  Perhaps a 20-second ad on a popular video used to fetch $1000, but now, only $900.
  3. YouTube’s losing significant revenue.  They might implement longer or more frequent ads, but this only causes more people to get Adblock, which causes the price of ads to slide further.
  4. Eventually, YouTube is making so little money from ads that they’re forced to change their business model.  They might reduce the size of their server network to cut overhead, increasing load times.  Or they might start charging for a YouTube Pro membership.  Users would have to pay to view videos over a minute long, or to view over 20 videos per month, or to upload.

And that’s how Adblock could ruin YouTube for all of us.  Looks like there really is no free lunch!

Continue reading

The Law of the Jungle

Ben and I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Jonathan Anomaly, a faculty fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics and a visiting professor at the Duke/UNC program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.  Dr. Anomaly’s field, often called PPE for short, might sound dry.  But it’s one of the most interesting areas of the social science.  In fact, it seems to be more of a way of thinking about all disciplines than a discipline in itself.

Rhino-Banner-1.jpgOur conversation that night drifted through many topics, but all were somehow relevant to PPE.  To familiarize yourself with the field, consider one of the most basic PPE thought exercises: pollution.  No one likes dirty air.  So why do we pollute?  Well, consider my morning commute to work.  I alone reap the benefits of working, but everyone shares the cost of breathing my car’s emissions.  The pollution I create is immaterial, but what happens when everyone uses my logic?  My readers in LA already know the answer.  Laws limiting pollution are necessary, because individuals alone cannot be trusted to limit their own pollution for the sake of everyone’s comfort.

Continue reading