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The infinite regress of signaling

Jordan 2017-12-25

I recently had the pleasure of catching up over drinks with my college friend, and, as he did much of the lifting when we wrote songs together, the Lennon to my McCartney, Johnny. The night began after dinner when we resolved to get drinks at Hopcat. Once we arrived there, seeing the line wrapping around the entire front walkway, making a loop through the crowds around the entire bar counter, absolutely confused about whether customers who wanted to drink but not eat were expected to wait in line or –, we gave up and left. Back in the cold street I pointed out that “it’s a little embarrassing that neither of us knows how to go to a bar.”

“Yeah, I have no idea what we were supposed to be doing in there,” he agreed.

“It actually made me really anxious, sort of like when you’re at a grocery store and everyone is both trying to get somewhere and in the way of someone else–”

“That grocery store anxiety.”

So we made our way to Mash, hopeful that we could do better, since Johnny’s 21st birthday had been there. But we went in through the door and walked down the steps and the entire bar was empty so that was fucked and we turned around and left again.

When we finally sat down at Arbor Brewing Co and got to talking over some beer, I mentioned that a big part of socializing in college was a specific type of signaling. Talking about nothing. Or not quite nothing, but maybe just the lowest common denominator. Into this bin I throw complaining about finals, bragging about how cynical you’re becoming about school, and “bonding” over beliefs that everyone finds easy to agree about. This observation for me started in high school, when the accepted way of starting conversations was to joke about how much homework and little sleep someone had gotten, and it almost felt like a taboo to admit that I didn’t feel like we got that much homework, and I didn’t find it too hard to get enough sleep. It would be uncharitable to suggest that this was therefore all lies from other people, and I do think that for some students “too much homework, too little sleep” was the extent of their experience.

But the reason it felt like a taboo, I would later realize, was partly because these signals were supposed to be a method of play, like a love-language but for small talk, and they were also tightly coupled with concepts of social status. It was expected that you shouldn’t overtly seek social status, and if it seemed like you were bragging about being smart, it must have been because you expected people to give you more status points. What you had to do instead, according to convention, was gracefully admit to others that you weren’t especially smart, but you worked hard because you had to, hence the lack of sleep and complaints about homework, and this would win you the fair number of status points that each student can earn if they just remember to be humble.

We talk about the weather because it’s unobjectionable. For most students it was also fine to talk about school that way because it’s basically unobjectionable; most teenagers don’t get enough sleep, and as for homework, even if it’s not very much you probably don’t prefer to get more of it unless you’re one of those strange oddballs who thinks doing more work in school will benefit you later in life.

I call this signaling and that implies a receiver. There is a specific audience that reacts the correct way to the signal you send when you complain about finals, and it’s basically the average on-the-smart-side college student.

But the fact that small talk isn’t good conversation doesn’t mean that complaining about small talk is good conversation. In this same way, calling out signaling does not make me exempt from trying to signal. It just happens that I’m broadcasting to a different kind of receiver. Because I’m more interested in talking to someone about the masses of people sending out boring signals, the signal I send out is tuned to be received by someone who is interested in the tendencies of the masses, and feels like they are above those masses, if not in status, then perhaps in frequency of the carrier wave.

And by that same adage, the fact that I will then go and point out that my counter-signaling is actually still a form of signaling acts as another signal to an even higher receiver. It says that aside from the last message I sent out, I’m also interested in discussing meta-signaling and self-awareness of the signals we send out. It says that I’m critical of my own tendencies and looking for a receiver that’s similarly critical to talk about how even when we talk about signaling we are still signaling.

Thus we form the infinite regress of signaling – where any effort to talk about signaling could get interpreted as a merely higher-frequency signal. And here’s the thing about ultra-high frequency signals: they’re indistinguishable from noise. If I start to complain that everything is just signaling, if I look everywhere and see the same thing, that’s the same as getting no signal at all. It’s the same as being blind.

We can solve this by mostly staying out of the meta level and focusing on the object level. The object level says that when someone is complaining about finals, you should reply the same way you do when someone complains about anything else, regardless of the patterns you’ve noticed where everyone seems to complain about finals at the same time every year instead of doing something about it like starting to study earlier. The object level says that when a Senior tells a Freshman that “they’ll understand when they’re older why they shouldn’t schedule 8 am classes,” you should engage them as if they really believe what they just said, regardless of the number of times you’ve interacted with people who have parroted that sentiment without really believing it. If you’re talking about signaling, then the object level says not to back up an extra meta level and get confused about how you’re probably still signaling, regardless of your growing inner suspicion that all of your blog posts are just becoming noise.



The Christmas Story

Jordan 2017-12-11

On Christmas Eve 1914, all along the Western Front of the Great War, soldiers on both sides of the trenches noticed a sudden absence of artillery bangs – a momentary and spontaneous ceasefire. In Ypres, Belgium, German troops placed candles along the edge of their trenches and fashioned a makeshift Christmas tree, ornamented with buttons, hats, and cigarettes, and went on to sing Christmas carols into the night. British troops across the division responded with Christmas carols of their own, and soon after, troops were exchanging gifts across no-man’s-land. This happened all over the French, German, and British lines, and proved that uncoordinated efforts to overcome non-pareto-optimal Nash equilibria by rejecting one’s own incentives in favor of the meta-incentive are possible, but only on Christmas.

In the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, one of the winning strategies is Tit-for-Tat. You can assume that your partner is trustworthy until they betray you, at which point you tat their tit by betraying them back. If it’s common knowledge that you’ll punish their tits, then this also acts to incentivize them not to betray you in the first place.

But suppose you’re a Tit-for-Tatter playing the iterated PD in a big pool with a bunch of people following a couple of different strategies. We call these people Angels and Demons. Angels always cooperate, and demons always defect. Let’s say that you are matched up with a random person in your pool, and your reward for winning against them by a large enough margin in a series of iterations is that more people start to use your strategy. If we mix a pool with mostly demons and a few angels, say 2/3 and 1/3, and do this over and over, the demons would obviously start to take over. The rare times angels would get matched together and win gains would be far exceeded by the number of times they are matched with demons and taken advantage of. But if we were to take half of the demons and turn them into Tit-for-Tatters so that there’s an even 3 way split, then the angels and Tit-for-Tatters would be at an advantage. Since they outnumber the demons, and angels can win gains when matched with Tit-for-Tatters as well as other angels, and since The Tit-for-Tatters also play sufficient defense against the demons so that their strategy doesn’t really spread, the pool will become dominated with angels and Tit-for-Tatters. As we can see, the benefit of Tit-for-Tat is that it opens you up to cooperation, but not in a way that allows you to be taken advantage of by those with no intention to cooperate.

Suppose we coin a new strategy, Aggressive Tit-for-Tat, which says that you should defect once and thereafter use the regular tit-for-tat strategy. This way you have slightly better gains against angels, and you play slightly better defense against devils. If you get matched up with a regular Tit-for-Tatter, well, you end up in an extremely non-pareto-optimal Nash equilibrium over the course of the iterations, as they continue to punish you for the last time you defected by defecting, and you continue to punish them for the last time they defected by defecting. But since you started it, which means you got to betray your partner one time before they started playing defense, you come out with a small gain. The pareto-optimal solution involves both sides collaborating, as they clearly have the ability to do, but since there is no existing culture of trust, neither side has any incentive to stop punishing the other side for defecting. If we fill a pool with angels, demons, and Aggressive-Tit-for-Tatters, all the angels will slowly be outcompeted, and you end up with a pool wherein everyone is defecting over and over, and any cooperation is immediately taken advantage of unless an angel happens to have been lucky enough to be matched up with another angel.

So introduce another new strategy called Generous Tit-for-Tat. This strategy says that you should use regular tit-for-tat, but every once in a while you can randomly forgive your partner. This way you collaborate with angels, still play pretty good defense against demons, and you also have the ability to spontaneously escape defect-loops with Aggressive-Tit-for-Tatters. Since collaboration yields the highest gains, if you were to introduce some of these into your pool which has become almost all Aggressive-Tit-for-Tatters and demons, you would do very well, the angels would begin to recover, and the demons would begin to die out.

I once heard a story about an economics professor who wanted to prove a point about rational decision making as a consumer. He would bring a twenty-dollar bill to class and hold an All-pay auction to see who gets the money, starting at $1 and going up in $1 increments. In an All-pay auction, bidding is spending, so if you bid one dollar and someone else bids two, you’re out $1 and they get the prize for $2. Predictably, the class would start with low bids – who wouldn’t want a twenty-dollar bill for the low price of $1? – and would often escalate past the point of $20, perhaps between two bidders who don’t want all the money they already spent to go to waste. Once, the professor recounts, the price of the twenty-dollar bill went all the way up to $204 dollars. Supposing the professor went on to selfishly pocket the money (rather than give it to charity, which he does) we would probably agree that on the whole we should be able to do better. Though every individual is incentivized to try and win the twenty-dollar bill for as little money as possible, there might also be a collective meta-incentive to deny a professor trying to make a point the satisfaction of being right. Just as you might choose to adopt the Generous Tit-for-Tat strategy yourself if you were to find yourself in one of the above pools, in hopes that it would lead to a healthier and more trust-infused pool for everyone, you might start this auction by bidding $1, and then $2, and $3, $4, $5, $6 (a total of $21) and then stopping, effectively making a gambit to purchase a collective win for $1, and hoping that your classmates have enough meta-reasoning and meta-incentive to not bid $7.

But generally gambits like this don’t work in real life. Not always because people don’t do the meta-reasoning, but because our meta-incentives are not quite so aligned. We are motivated by social status, politics, and on the whole tend to have different values. Maybe you don’t care about the overall health in the pool as long as you can defect enough to feed your immediate family. Maybe you realize that you can win social status points by messing with the nerd who proposes a $1 gambit in his blog by bidding $7 anyway.

WWI, as it turns out, came with a mostly-aligned incentive of live-and-let-live. Soldiers in the trenches felt this at a deep level, and so when the other side began running across no-man’s-land, our side didn’t decide to immediately resume shooting and end the ceasefire by defecting. But by Christmas the year after, orders had come down that no fraternizing with the enemy was allowed. This at least, allowed for more consistency, and made slightly more sense than the idea that we might spontaneously hop to a peaceful equilibrium on Christmas, only to go back to war right after New Year’s. Real war has a lot to do with politics and you need to consider more than which iterated PD strategy is your favorite. War is complicated. But at the meta level, everyone still prefers peace. Even those who go to war tell themselves that they’re doing it to achieve eventual peace. It just happens that it’s hard to step from our particular equilibrium of continuous war into an equilibrium of continuous peace. It’s hard to step from having 4000 stockpiled nuclear warheads (enough to destroy the world 40 times in a row) and a defense budget of $800,000,000,000 to, let’s say half of that, especially if we have no reason to trust that our enemies are also going to reduce spending on their weapons.

But Christmas is the best holiday because it allows us to do things like exactly that. All the messaging and advertising reminds us that this is the season to think of others (by buying them Hallmark cards and Coca Cola, but think of them nonetheless). Christmas is our culture’s winter solstice celebration, when we huddle together on the coldest and darkest day of the year and say “fuck you nature” by putting up lights and singing songs. It’s the time that we celebrate our ability to trust each other and be close, because all our crops are dead and it’s all we can do to ask our neighbors for theirs. And because our culture has a Christmas, we are able to do things like temporarily create a culture of trust where soldiers on either side can expect the enemy to honor a ceasefire. We are allowed to temporarily forgive and be generous, and we are allowed to be rewarded with gains for that cooperation. Even when the pool is dominated by Aggressive-Tit-for-Tatters and demons, we are allowed to chose Generous-Tit-for-Tat, and wordlessly cooperate with our brothers and sisters who have seen the same light as us – that there is a better world than the one we live in, and it’s only one collective step away.

Even in times of peace there is poverty and disease. Even if you believe war is necessary to arrive at a greater good, there is starvation and disaster. If one Christmas, decades from now, everyone in the world donates 10% of their income to help others, then just the first year’s $7,000,000,000,000 would be enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, and permanently save every rainforest in the world, with money to spare. (Now imagine if we auctioned that money $20 at a time to business school students!) I am the first to admit the insane extent to which our Christmas traditions are just ways to make us buy things we don’t need and turn the spirit of giving into a commodity. But here’s a more thoughtful and less cynical narrative: Christmas is a fluke in the brokenness of the world, a crack in the system’s armor that lets us do good and trust that others will too, and every year we get one more chance for a small window of time to use our ability to forgive and be generous without fear of being taken advantage of, and maybe we don’t quite hit the mark this year or next year, but I will be back every year putting up candles along my trench and singing songs, and I’d like it if you joined me.



You're glowing, I smile and say to my laptop

Jordan 2017-11-28

When I was in middle school I read 1984 by George Orwell. There’s a chapter where everyone’s stretching and Winston isn’t flexible enough, but the activity coordinator comes by and tells him that someone in his age group ought to be able to touch his toes, so he pushes extra hard and touches his toes. This is, of course, some kind of metaphor but I remember in middle school being impressed with his ability to stretch.

Alternate titles for this blog:
“I’m writing this for me!” I shout into the person-less void.
Trying so hard to be smart that I am no longer funny.
Trying so hard to be funny that I am no longer honest.

I watched Atypical on Netflix and realized that I’m not very autistic. I have some sensitivities but it’s not comparable to diagnosable autism, even high functioning. But has anyone in that goddamn show ever even tried thinking about their own social awareness? Dad: “Sam, does your arm still hurt?” Sam, autistically: “No Dad, you just asked me that 5 minutes ago, my arm wouldn’t suddenly start hurting for no reason in 5 minutes. Why would you ask me that?” Dad: acts stunned and has no response. And I just want to scream “explain to him that asking about the arm is a way of signaling that you care about him! These aren’t unanswerable questions!”

Alternate titles for this blog:
Single paragraph bits strung into incomprehensible lumps

At its best Atypical is a show about how we all sometimes have issues with nonverbal communication. How we all can get overwhelmed and feel lost. The charitable interpretation of the aforementioned qualms is that, yeah, that is actually how clueless real people are when you ask them a question about social convention. And anyway the introduction of Paige’s character nearly makes up for this, and hammers home the point that was brought up as early as the first episode – Sam is good at following rules once they are explained to him, though he can’t always intuit what the rules are.

As part of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s improv show, ASSSSCAT, a guest improviser will often deliver monologues given a single word prompt. Tina Fey’s monologue starts, “squish… squish makes me think of bugs,” and she figures out the rest of her point without stopping, wrapping up her slightly beaten parcel of thoughts with a little bow at the end, “… squish.” This makes me think of my manager, Robert, and how he admitted that he thought he was good at improv and immediately redacted it, perhaps sensing that he was in danger of being a Person Who Thinks He’s Good At Improv, a thought that only pops into my head because I’m projecting my own tendency to make the same pronouncement and subsequent redacting. (Acting is redacting.) And that makes me think of a piece I saw on the internet about how you get less funny when you get a day job, and how the author of that piece was trying so hard to be funny while writing about being funny because the only reason anyone would care what he thought was if we also thought he was an expert at being funny. Which makes me think of the time Brain told me that he thinks my calling is to make people laugh.

Alternate titles for this blog:
If I write that I’m a narcissist does that tell you that I’m a narcissist or just someone who is likely to tell you that he is?

I don’t feel the difference between liking something in earnest and liking something ironically. And if there is a difference I don’t think it’s as easily definable as people act like it is. As long as such pieces as Sharknado and Piranha 3D exist, which are meant to be consumed “ironically,” it’s impossible to separate ironic enjoyment from actual enjoyment. The makers of those movies knew that there was a market for so-bad-that-they’re-good movies. That means they made them for the exact kind of consumption that we’re calling ironic consumption. Doesn’t that mean our consumption isn’t ironic after all? The first time I heard of pumpkin spice lattes I managed to go a full year without also hearing that liking them meant you had bad taste. And once I learned that I was able to immediately transition from liking them to liking them in spite of their reputation. I made the quick and fluid transition from liking pumpkin spice in earnest to something that wasn’t quite ironic enjoyment but was at the very least an enjoyment that was partially derived from the fact that people considered my aesthetic to be a sign of bad taste. Through it all the thing that never changed was the fact that I like the taste of pumpkin spice. It’s cinnamony with a little tingle of spicey, and deathly sweet.

This is my revival blog. I am hashtag figuring out life. Read all about it please.

Alternate titles for this blog:
Blog titles, mostly, and occasionally the rest



Facebook is truthstrapped

Jordan 2017-11-25

I’m old enough to remember Myspace, but was not cool enough to have had an account. I got on Facebook in middle school, when statuses still started with “is,” only a year or two before Facebook overtook Myspace in users in 2009. I made an account for the games, having transitioned from the click-and-wait online game Outwar which fleshed out some of the ideas used in so many Clash of Clans-like smartphone games today. In Outwar you receive a certain number of units every day and expend them to attack other users and take their territory, which allows you a larger daily income of units to spend tomorrow. If you wanted to you could go further back and track my transition from Neopets to Outwar – Neopets, which showed me the fulfillment potential of doing simple tasks every day for a small reward, neopoints, which you could spend on food for your pet, custom paintbrushes, or other items. Visit Jellyland for the free daily jelly, go to the giant omelette, try your luck at the Wheel of Misfortune. I was an excellent little capitalist, thanks to these games. And by middle school I felt ready for my transition into Facebook.

During my first week on the site I uploaded an album of funny pictures my brother and I had saved on our shared computer and tagged my friends in the album. They went through it and commented with our in-jokes, lol’s, and haha’s. I set my profile picture to one of the funny pictures which featured a cat apparently whipping it’s tail at another cat and inflicting 9999 damage, according to the overlaid special effects. Like a real Facebooker, I posted on my friends walls and got in poke wars. But I had a certain sense that I was not really using Facebook. That there was another tier of users whose pictures were their real face, whose relationship statuses were not hidden, who posted photo albums from outings with friends. To me, I realized, Facebook was another site with daily tasks – share a status – and rewards – count the likes. It was a game. It was Neopets.

Forbes suggested in 2011 that the reason Facebook had overtaken Myspace was because it adapted to the market and its let users take control of the direction of growth. Myspace was bought by an experienced media company which laid out their own set direction of growth, and that direction was at odds with what users wanted. But exactly what aspects of that direction were wrong? There was a time when Myspace was the most visited site in the US. Facebook was a late comer with an unoriginal idea, so why did it win?

In 2015 an interviewer asked Mike Jones, the former CEO of Myspace, that exact question. Jones answered, simply, that Facebook won because they forced users to use their real names. When Myspace was just starting, people were still hesitant to reveal their names on the internet. It wasn’t part of our culture. It was risky. So when Facebook decreed that their site was not a place for online handles but for real people, they anchored themselves to real society. This, it turns out, was the right direction to head.

For me, as middle school ended and high school began, my profile picture went through a few more phases – a map of the country of Jordan, a cartoon cutout from the You Are a Pirate meme, a screenshot of Brad Neely’s Washington, but by sophomore year I had settled on an actual picture of me, having noticed the popular kids doing so. People started talking about “Facebook stalking” their crushes, which implied a market for the curation of my profile, so I filled in the about me section and picked a favorite quotation. I would hear talks of how annoying it was when you got a notification from a friend inviting you to play a game and so I stopped playing games on Facebook. My friends started owning smartphones with cameras and so my albums began to fill up with actual pictures of me. I got invitations to New Year’s parties and Marching Band invitationals and then referred back to Facebook when checking the date and location of the events later. Slowly Facebook became less like Neopets and more like a reflection of my actual social life.

Truthstrapping is what happens when something starts as a reflection of the truth and eventually becomes reliable enough to be indistinguishable from the truth. When you are standing in the bathroom looking at the mirror and someone walks in behind you do you turn and look to verify that the mirror isn’t lying to you? Maybe not. I’ve noticed that when I see a name I don’t recognize on my Facebook news feed, I assume that at some point I must have met them at a party or something, otherwise why would we be friends? Facebook was designed to be a reflection of your social life, but at some point I think it truthstrapped itself into being a standalone aspect of your social life. In fact social media is so independently important in some of my friend groups that a lot of my friends have to explicitly mention when they aren’t on Facebook. There are people I know who are completely different on and offline, because they’ve learned the skill of social media differently than the skill of in-person socializing. And if you weren’t paying attention then you might have been surprised that those are even two separate skills.

Google search also truthstrapped itself. Google started off with the goal of cataloging the useful information on the internet so that users could find it faster. There were trustworthy sources that were likely to present true and relevant information, and there were untrustworthy and irrelevant sources, and their job was to help you search through them. This, of course, included when you would search for things like “furniture store” and end up with a long list of furniture stores’ websites, each purporting to be the best store, so you can imagine why search engine optimization became important for an online brand. But notice that in that very same moment the Google feed also takes on a life of its own. If there is no true single best furniture store, then the best a Google search should be able to do is reflect that they are basically tied. Yet for a user who is expecting the top result on Google to be the best, it becomes valuable for a company to be able to be that top result. Again, something that begins as a reflection of reality eventually becomes reliable enough to become indistinguishable from reality. “Furniture House is the top Google search result, so it must be one of the major stores.” In a way, a statement like this has its logic – if everyone agrees that being the top search result is desirable then the largest companies with the most resources should be the most capable of appearing at the top of the feed. But I don’t think this is how we think when we use Google. Unless we’re looking for a marketing firm it doesn’t really matter to us which business is the best at showing up in your search results. The truth is more surface-level: it matters to us which business is at the top of the page because businesses at the top of the page reliably tend to be better.

So what happens when a truthstrapped source starts to loosen its tight coupling with the truth?



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