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The Stakes As Well As The Odds

by DeAnander Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 06:09:10 AM EST

Lazy cut/paste diary.  What I've been saying about risk assessment...  we should be thinking like a poker player, not like a general sitting on a handy ridgetop sending lower ranks into the fray...


A POKER PLAYER'S GUIDE TO THE ENVIRONMENT

  1. Calculate the stakes as well as the odds.

  2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations -- especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium -- it is the latter odds that are important.

  3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

  4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don't have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time -- or with the economy or with the environment -- that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

  5. Don't let anyone -- in industry, government, or the media -- define an "acceptable level of risk" for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

  6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.

---- Sam Smith, "Pocket Paradigms", www.prorev.com

the stakes are getting very, very high.

and the odds ain't improving either.

From the diaries - whataboutbob


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The stakes, of course, are the numbers that go in the little boxes of your game-theory pay-off matrix.  They should be chosen to represent reality.  

Amazing:  If you introduce a little clever, fancy, high-tech, everyone is so fascinated that they just don't want to fill in the boxes!  Payoff minus infinity?  But the chance is so low, why don't we just round it up to minus ten, and calculate with that instead?  

My mood here is a holdover from a different thread:  Science fundies are just as bad as religious fundies--they don't care about anything except their little toy theory/theology.  

A story:  A while ago I came across an entertaining book on a very dull subject--I still have it--called "Structures:  or why things don't fall down" by J.E.Gordon.  It's from the 1980s, but Gordon has been around a while--consulting on projects that had to work or investigating projects that didn't work.  (Oops!)  At one point he wanders onto a tangent about why architects don't use glass for structural (load bearing) members.

First he sets it up:  Glass is a great material--it is easy to work with, stronger than steel (at least by weight), and has many good properties.  Nevertheless, it is never used.  

The reason:  It's mode of failure.  When glass fails under stress, it fails without warning, all at once, and totally.  This is bad--it makes the structure untrustworthy.  Since all structures fail, someday, eventually, you need to use a material with a predictable life, and that gives a predictable warning--usually by exhibiting strain in advance of failure.  

The moral:  There are some technologies you cannot use, no matter how attractive they are, because their defects are too great.  

I am glad architects understand this.  It would be good if this technical principle were understood more generally by those who claim to be scientific.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 05:38:43 AM EST
The point, of course, is that the payoff is very seldom -infinity. Name a technology where it is.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 05:58:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There you are being non-anti-nuclear again.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 06:01:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Black hole synthesis, Advanced pathological microorganism production ? :)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 08:36:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Depends what you're doing with the black hole and where it is ... and how big it is. And what the pathological microorganisms are pathological to.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 08:37:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think Linca is talking about the possibility that the LHC's quark-gluon plasma creates a microscopic black hole which would then proceed to eat the Earth.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 08:47:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I know, but I thought I'd be awkward.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 08:48:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
we have a squad for people like you :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 07:42:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Larry Niven wrote a very funny story about the black hole that ate (will eat) Mars.  

You do not want a black hole anywhere near your neighborhood.  Or even near your planetary system.  This is the kind of thing that ought to be obvious.  It matters not at all what you might be thinking to do with it.  

Scientists who refuse to think about consequences really bug me.  There are words for people like that, but no polite ones.  

PS I DO know the difference between fusion and fission, but unless a technology like Inertial Electrostatic Confinement can 1) get funding 2) actually work, we have missed the window on that one because even if ITER/tokamak finally works it will come too late.  And we STILL would need to consider what to do about the hot fusor site itself.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 08:54:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.

In the game of life, the stakes are death and the odds are 100%. So let's not play.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 24th, 2007 at 05:49:38 AM EST
That's precisely why life is not a game?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 04:01:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, we're in the realm of inadequate metaphors in this diary.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 04:18:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure I can agree with "inadequate". I think the poker metaphor provides a perfectly good, intuitively usable framework for assessing the personal risks from environmental degradation/climate change.

The first hard part is encouraging people to approach the issue in that way.

The second hard part will be to transition from a multiplicity of personal insights to collective action.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 06:48:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose whether a metaphor is compelling is in teh eye of the beholder. I don't feel compelled. Maybe I'm in the minority here.

I can imagine better metaphors for environmental degradation than gambling. Such as: eating the seed corn, pissing in your own soup.

The more you look into the gambling metaphor the shakier it gets. What's the analogue of card-counting? Where are the mathematically precise odds? Where is the bluffing? Is it a zero-sum game? Even the quoted text starts by distinguishing odds from stakes and then mixes them up. And the resort to gambler's ruin (odds of something ever happening) is self-defeating as it invites my observation that ruin is certain (Kolmogorov's zero-one law) which reduces the whole exercise to absurdity. This is related to Cheney's infamous one-percent rule

If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.
(Hat tip to someone)

I don't see the betting parlour in environmental/energy policy (or lack thereof). The only betting parlour in sight is the financial markets, and there the gambling metaphor is apt, the more you look into it the better it gets, and the final conclusion must be

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes


Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 07:02:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can imagine better metaphors for environmental degradation than gambling. Such as: eating the seed corn, pissing in your own soup.

yes, I agree, they are better -- and I've used them (and variants thereon) also...  but they don't seem to work either, as far as making any dent in the general complacency of the "average" (average that is, among the rarefied social stratum of the semi-educated and respectably affluent classes of N Am)...  "somehow" Science (I refer here to the popularised fetish rather than the serious activity of increasing understanding of ourselves and our world) will synthesise corn from sand, or immunise us against all the consequences of contaminating our food supply...  oh yeah, and we'll run our cars on peanut butter.  "scientists will figure something out," or at least that is what most people I talk to seem to believe.  it's what they say anyway;  perhaps it's just whistling past the graveyard?

sometimes I suspect that metaphors like soup and seed corn are automatically devalued in the cognition of a generation raised from birth to model everything in life as a machine or a market or a casino divorced from biotic realities.  as if a concern with food, agriculture, or any related issues were somehow declasse, infra dig, not worth engaging with...?

interestingly, several of the actual scientists I talk to think that we are very nearly at (within a generation of) "game over, reset";  one of my favourite astronomers (the Marcy of Marcy/Butler the planet-hunting team, if I may presume to drop a name) said rather sadly to me a couple of weeks ago that it seems a shame -- Terra might very well be the only planet in this galaxy, if not in this universe, to develop the astonishing complexity of life (a colossal fluke, in other words, a weird little pocket of local counter-entropic activity); and yet we seem determined to reduce our ecosystem back to the salad days of slime-molds and protists, and put ourselves (the top predator du jour) out of business for good.  as an astronomer, he said, obviously he takes a long and artificially detached view;  it's a big universe, does it really matter if we blow ourselves up or poison ourselves or veneriform Terra?  but it does seem as if we ought to try to preserve things like the astonishing variety of our music, speech, art, agriculture, etc.   the odds are that nowhere else out there can be found a gamelan ensemble or gregorian chant or chinese opera (or the chicago symphony for that matter, or a really good plate of fresh favas and pasta), ought to make our life here so precious that we wouldn't gamble the farm on grandiose anti-reality fantasies with quite such suicidal enthusiasm.  

seems like we keep wanting to prove -- from our Sky-Father religions to our more recent cyborg dreams -- that we are something somehow better and higher, cleaner and purer, more powerful and aetherial and marvelous than mere organisms;  that we can divorce ourselves from the "splendor and travail" [H Beston] of biotic life, which we call "messy" and "dirty" and "icky" (when we aren't calling it "sissy")... all the while remaining wilfully oblivious to how amazingly complex, rare, fascinating, improbable and wondrous it is for us to be what we are:  a living organism on a planet (that may well be) uniquely wealthy in this gorgeous fluke of living organisms woven into complex, entangled systems.  one bright ball of exuberant life in a very big and eerily quiet galaxy...  hey, we already won the lottery.

but returning to the original topic for a mo:  the importance of stakes as well as odds is I think relevant to all discussions of risk/benefit, even if poker isn't the most scintillating metaphor.  the magnitude of the potential downside is relevant;  if there is a 1/1000 chance that the person standing next to me w/a steaming mug will spill coffee on my best shirt, that is not something I'm gonna worry about too much, but if there is a 1/1000 chance that the person pointing a loaded gun at me might sneeze and accidentally pull the trigger, that's far more worrying.  same odds, higher stakes...  very different situation.

similarly the argument that the Universe is doomed to entropic rundown, or that we are all mortal anyway, doesn't really vitiate my anxiety about the 1/1000 chance of having my head blown off before my time, or -- particularly -- willynilly by the malice or carelessness of another person, rather than by my own agency :-)

that last part is relevant too.  the other aspect almost always left out of CoBA is "for  whom," i.e., who's making the decision to take the risk, vs who's actually most exposed to the risk, and who's reaping the potential reward?

the "impeccable" logic [thank you, Larry, for that deathless quote] of dumping US industrial waste on the third world, or situating refineries, airports, chem plants and other toxic and dangerous facilities in lower-income neighbourhoods, are perfect examples of "benefits for me, risks for you, the math looks good to me."  but one basic principle of democracy, or anything resembling democracy, is that people get to make their own decisions about what risks they want to take;  conversely they don't get to inflict, for their own benefit, risks on others that have not been consented to.  the more collective our risk-taking is, the higher the stakes get, the more we need consensus rather than authoritarianism if we're to make any ethical justification for the risk.  and at this point, the big risks we are taking are global.

climate change mitigation is another good example of "your cost my bennies" CoBA:  the nations that have least benefitted from the fossil binge and have least contributed to the problem (the equatorial, subtropical and polar environments) are the hardest hit by the costs.  meanwhile the biggest offender nations -- the League of Fossil Flatulence -- sit around debating in a leisurely fashion whether it is "cost effective" to address the problem...  since their own catastrophes may be arriving next week or next year rather than today or tomorrow.

but looking at recent news from the UK, maybe it's sooner than next week or next year that the headwaiter will be back with the bill for that long, reckless fossil pig-out...  yikes.

sorry, this is a bit rambling...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 04:47:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
interestingly, several of the actual scientists I talk to think that we are very nearly at (within a generation of) "game over, reset";

Well, the most infuriating thing abut this whole mess is that there is a scientific consensus that we're in the middle of a disaster, but the business and political class don't want to hear about it. And given the choice between cornucopianism and frugality, people choose cornucopianism.

In human terms we've been there before: Europe's 14th century. In cultural and ecological terms, we haven't.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 03:18:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and yet I still hear "ordinary" folks talking about the Oregon Petition as proof that there is no consensus.

there seems to be a vague correlation between rightwing politics and climate change denial, and aside from the obvious alignment (capitalism ueber alles, money-worship) I wonder if there are not deeper structural reasons for this.  worth thinking about... it is possible that a decade of nonstop disasters could finally discredit the liberal and neoliberal economic model for good-n-all.  but oh gods, at what a price...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 02:12:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If a narrative that attributes global climate change to traditional economics is not vigorously pushed before the disaster, it won't make a difference.

What is the Oregon Petition?

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 03:03:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh I thought everyone knew about the Oregon Petition, sorry.  A fine upstanding example of astroturf in action.  You will find many an ordinary USian saying, "But wasn't there this petition that 19,000 scientists signed saying they didn't believe global warming was caused by humans?"  Thanks for the wikipedia link.

Here is a British site that references it as well.

Here's how good old Faux News used it on-air... along with a quick rundown on the petition's funders and creators:

Also circulated with the petition was a letter from Frederick Seitz, a former NAS president, that warned that "[t]he United States is very close to adopting" the Kyoto Protocol, which, according to Seitz, "would ration the use of energy and of technologies that depend upon coal, oil, and natural gas and some other organic compounds." Seitz added that "there is good evidence that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is environmentally helpful." A June 5, 2000, item in Business Week reported that "[f]or 28 years, Seitz was also a paid director and shareholder of Ogden Corp., an operator of coal-burning power plants that stands to lose financially should the Kyoto Protocol become law." Business Week reported that Seitz "sold most of his 11,500 shares" of Ogden in 1999 -- after promoting the petition in 1998.

An article in the May 2006 edition of Vanity Fair by Mark Hertsgaard reported, in Hertsgaard's words, "in full for the first time," the real "overlap" -- exemplified by Seitz -- between "the people who deny the dangers of climate change" and the "tobacco executives who denied the dangers of smoking." Hertsgaard reported that after leaving the NAS, Seitz "helped R. J. Reynolds Industries, Inc., give away [$45 million] to fund medical research in the 1970s and 1980s," which "avoided the central health issue" of smoking and "served the tobacco industry's purposes," but that "as proof of its commitment to science," "the industry frequently ran ads in newspapers and magazines citing its multi-million-dollar research program." The article further reported that, in a paper he authored in the 1990s, Seitz "asserted that secondhand smoke posed no real health risks." The article added that Seitz is "chairman emeritus" of the George C. Marshall Institute, which is one of "an array of organizations" funded by ExxonMobil "to downplay the problem" of global warming.

Monbiot recently was interviewed  on, among other things, this convergence between the Big Tobacco lobby and the Big Fossil lobby -- perhaps between them they should found the Anti-Lung Association?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 07:38:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
meta4's....

how's about, setting fire to your favourite supermarket?

castrating yourself in a priapic spasm?

laying mines in your bathroom?

breeding black mambas in your bedroom?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 12:43:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ramble on, per-leeze...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Jul 26th, 2007 at 12:49:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Life is a zero sum game." - George Carlin

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 06:59:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The laws of thermodynamics:

Zeroth: "You must play the game."
First: "You can't win."
Second: "You can't break even."
Third: "You can't quit the game."

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 07:04:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Quantum addendum: Just because you can't win doesn't mean you must lose or break even - you could,  win.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Wed Jul 25th, 2007 at 08:32:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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