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The Long Now
Part 3: Wink
That’s me on the left, giving Luca a pat on the head. That’s Neb Tnuh on the right, giving you a pat on the head.
If you’re not familiar with Neb, here’s how I introduced him last year:
“Neb has a hard time talking with real people these days. Neb just doesn’t … connect … the way he used to. He doesn’t have much to say. He mumbles a lot. He imagines long and involved conversations with people in his head, but that’s where they stay. In his head.
Sartre famously said that hell is other people. For Neb, hell is other people who want to talk about markets or politics. Neb is just so WEARY of being lectured for the umpteenth time on why Trump is so awful or why Trump is so great, why Bitcoin is going to $100,000 or why Bitcoin is going to zero, why the “fundamentals are sound” or why the fundamentals are sound EXCEPT for this one thing which will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down ANY DAY NOW, why the Fed is the source of all evil in the world or why the NRA is the source of all evil in the world or why the Democrats / Republicans are the source of all evil in the world.
So obviously Neb is a real barrel of laughs at parties, which he shuns today even though he remembers that he used to like parties. The circle of real people that he actively feels comfortable being around has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk until he can count them on his fingers, and even here Neb increasingly has a hard time connecting with these non-rhinoceros friends. He increasingly talks past and through the people who are the most important to him, like his wife and daughters. And that makes Neb saddest of all.
He’s lost friends over the widening gyre, lost over the event horizon of black hole Trumpdom or lost in the blare of doubleplusgood DemSoctalk. He’s lost family, too.
On the flip side of that coin, it’s easier and easier for Neb to talk with complete strangers on social media platforms. It’s all so easy for Neb to lose himself in this ocean of social abstraction and Turing tests, because he’s fluent in the symbolic languages of mathematics, history and pop culture. And so he swims in that ocean, compulsively even, until he’s forgotten whether or not there was ever a shore.“
That’s the defining characteristic of life in the Long Now … you swim in an ocean of stimulus and fear so long that you forget whether or not there was ever a shore. You forget yourself. You forget your identity as an autonomous human-in-full, connected with other humans that you work and play with in a non-instrumental sense. You forget your Pack.
You become a cartoon.
You become a believer in the “Yay, capitalism!” and “Yay, military!” and “Yay, college!” narratives used by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy to their advantage and your detriment.
And on and on we swim in the ocean of social abstraction.
It’s intentional. It’s done TO us.
It’s a system of belief and forgetfulness designed to objectify us … to turn us into predictable and thus manipulable objects. Not objects like a shoe or a rake, but “objects” as the term is used in computer code, as digitized receptacles for if/then functions to act upon.
Our contradictions become attributes. Our vectors become bitmaps. We are smoothed through a psychological Gaussian blur. We are digitized and depixellated. Our autonomous human IDENTITY becomes a programmable human ENTITY.
When I say that we are transformed into cartoons, I mean that quite literally.
Sound familiar, Neb? It should.
You see, Neb loves to play cards and games. He loves to gamble. And when he was in college in the mid-80s, he was in a fraternity that had a very infrequent poker game, maybe once a month or so. It was a wonderful game … low stakes, friendly camaraderie, really a lot of fun. But over a period of about 18 months over his junior and senior years, Neb corrupted that monthly low-stakes game of Community into a weekly high-stakes game of Alienation and Cartoon … into a system of belief and forgetfulness.
First, Neb introduced wild cards into the game.
Neb would always laugh to himself when someone bristled at poker games with wild cards, when he heard someone say “that’s not REAL poker”, as if there’s anything real about any of this. Neb knew that he would be able to run circles around that guy in calculating the revised odds of winning poker once he introduced greater volatility into the game. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in more players hanging around in a hand longer than they should, given those revised odds. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in players getting lucky more often, getting memorable hands more often … having more fun in the the game. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without wild cards.
Then Neb introduced credit into the game.
The original poker game was cash-only. Sometimes we wouldn’t even play with chips, just with dimes and quarters and dollar bills. There was no “bank”; you played with the cash you brought to the game, and that was it. But then Neb offered to hold the money and dispense the chips, so that in case there was some disparity when people cashed their chips in (which occasionally happened in a banker-less game), Neb would make up the shortfall out of his own pocket. From there it was an easy step for Neb to take IOUs written down on a little slip of paper rather than cash. Pretty soon Neb had a wallet full of IOUs. Pretty soon a game where losing $20 in cash felt awful became a game where losing $80 in little slips of paper felt like nothing. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without credit.
Then Neb raised the stakes.
This one was easy. Once you were no longer limited to the cash you brought to the table and once you no longer had to settle up your debts at the end of the game, it just made sense to raise the stakes. In truth it made no sense, of course, but Neb drove this with a narrative … that players were afraid if they didn’t jump in at the new betting levels. Amazing how college-age males don’t want to show that they’re scared or that the game is too big for them. Amazing how non-college-age males do the same. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without high stakes.
Then Neb introduced derivatives.
Derivative games are different than just adding wild cards to standard games. Derivative games are different rule sets, with additional zero-sum outcomes that allow for more ways for the better player to win with the same distribution of cards. Keep in mind that Neb played poker before Texas Hold-em and Omaha took over the world. This was dealer’s choice, and a derivative game with the right stimulus/response pattern could spread around the table like a virus. Side-pot games are a derivative rule set, as are hi-lo games, as are match-the-pot games. Neb introduced a game with SIX betting rounds, plus hi-lo, plus match the pot if you lost. Tons of action, everyone felt like they were in the game all the way to the end, and then there was that wonderful frisson … that thrill of anticipation and ENORMOUS pot-matching potential loss … if you stayed in for that final, central card. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without derivatives.
And then Neb stole their tells.
This was the big one.
All of the regulars had different tells, but they all had one. Here was the one that made the most money for Neb. This was Kurt’s tell.
The final action of a hi-lo game, where both the best hand and the worst hand split the pot, is to declare whether you are going high (best hand) or low (worst hand) or both ways (must win both the high contest and the low contest with different 5-card combinations from your set of cards). To declare for high you put one chip in your clenched fist, to declare for low you put zero chips in your fist, and to declare for both you put two chips in your fist. You do all this underneath the table, you wait until everyone shows their fists publicly, and then everyone reveals the number of chips in their hands at the count of three.
When Kurt was declaring high (or both ways, I guess), his clenched fist looked like this:
And when Kurt was declaring for low, his fist looked like this:
That little crook of the thumb (and the ability to quickly calculate the right play as soon as Kurt’s hand came up above the table) was by itself worth a couple of thousand dollars to Neb, playing low stakes poker over a period of months. I won’t get into the math, except to say that knowing Kurt’s tell – and so always having the option of going the other way in a hi-lo game – gave Neb a +$2.00 to +$3.00 expected value for every hand dealt once the game was geared up to maximum loss levels. And they dealt a lot of hands. This was the secret to the system that Neb set up … he had a consistent positive expected return on every hand that was dealt, while the other players had a consistent negative expected return. And you may think that would make for a short-lived game where everyone quickly tired of playing with Neb, BUT:
- The gameplay was thrilling, both on each hand and over the course of the night. When you won, you won big and you believed that you had played brilliantly. Neb would tell you so. When you lost, you believed it was because you were “unlucky”. You believed that it wasn’t your “fault”. Neb would tell you that, too.
- On any given hand, Neb was subject to apparent volatility, which he played to the hilt. Neb loved to lose the occasional hand on a bad beat!
- While there was very little true volatility for Neb, there was a ton of volatility for the other players. Meaning that everyone would have the occasional big win, and that was all that was needed to keep them coming back and believing in the game. And forgetting that the game had ever been anything different.
- While Neb had a consistent positive expected return on every hand dealt, the player from whom Neb stole his tell typically had a positive expected return on that hand. A small positive return, to be sure, but enough to condition players over time to persist in their tells and believe that they were particularly good players in Neb’s game. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough … everyone who sat at Neb’s table long enough came to believe that they were a great poker player. LOL.
And so did Neb. Also LOL.
It wasn’t playing poker really well that made Neb a lot of money in that college game. It was building a fear and stimulus machine that made Neb a lot of money. It was building a system of play that predictably zapped and rewarded the other players, so that they believed that a negative expected value system was a positive expected value system, and they forgot that an alternative system of play was even possible. It was turning his fraternity “brothers” into stimulus/response objects, turning them into abstracted versions of themselves. It was turning them into cartoons.
And in doing so, Neb became a cartoon himself. Not an objectified and manipulated cartoon (yet), but a cartoon nonetheless. Neb is neither clear-eyed nor full-hearted.
See, Neb didn’t really PLAN to objectify his fraternity buds. It just came naturally to him. That is, in fact, the scariest thing about Neb … he really does swim effortlessly in this ocean of social abstraction and manipulation. It’s something I have to talk to him about pretty much every day, especially when he steals the password to my Twitter account.
Looking back on it now, I am grateful beyond measure that online poker and poker-as-a-business did not exist for Neb in the mid-80s. Because if they had, Neb’s life would have gone down a VERY different path. A bad path. And of course, so would have mine.
Because Neb was not wise enough to understand the WHY of his poker winnings. Because Neb, like Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, would have thought he was talented enough to “compete” at a higher level. As if talent is enough to succeed in a fear and stimulus system geared against you. As if talent is enough to succeed in a rigged game. Because that’s what a fear and stimulus system IS … a rigged game.
For every too-clever-by-half coyote like Neb Tnuh who confuses talent for being on the right side of a fear and stimulus system, there is a scaled version of that same system that exists to objectify and stimulus/response Neb like he objectified and stimulus/responsed his frat brothers, and there is a scaled version of THAT system on top of that, and a scaled version of THAT system on top of that.
There are at least four nested systems of believing and forgetting in our modern social lives. Sooner or later, we all become objectified cartoons. We all get bitmapped. We all start to believe that our negative expected value game is a positive expected value game, and we all forget that an alternative game is even possible. Some part of us, anyway. The Neb part of us.
Few people today remember The Peter Principle, pretty much the first wildly successful pop psychology business management book, published in 1969. It’s a great book, with a simple one-line lesson: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
So here’s the Epsilon Theory variation, call it The Neb Principle:
In mass society, every citizen tends to rise to his level of cartoonification.
At every level of this nested and fractal system of believing and forgetting, the micro-structure time-line is the same. This is the exhaustive set of steps to establish a system of believing and forgetting, at any level of organization. It succeeds without fail, always and in all ways.
1. Introduce wildcards
2. Introduce credit
3. Raise the stakes
4. Introduce derivatives
5. Steal the tells
In every field of economic endeavor … in every manifestation of political competition … in every nook and cranny of our modern social lives … a system of believing and forgetting is being established following exactly these steps. It wasn’t necessarily planned that way. But with enough coyotes and enough time, it emerges. It IS. And it is a VERY stable system.
I believe that we are at a tipping point today. I believe that we are on the cusp of these systems becoming irreversible. Or at least irreversible without a cataclysmic Fall. I believe that the process of the Long Now is now being ensconced at a global scale … at the scale of an oligarchic economic system of believing and forgetting and a statist political system of believing and forgetting.
How? Through mastery of the fifth stage of the Long Now micro-structure.
By stealing our tells.
That’s what Facebook does. That’s what Google does. That’s what the Democratic Party and the Republican Party do. That’s what Wall Street does. That’s what every S&P 500 company does. That’s what every central bank does. That’s what every powerful economic and political organization in the world does today.
They steal our tells. At scale. At global scale.
You know the word for what they do with our stolen tells, don’t you? It’s Nudge.
And you know the true superpower of a Nudge, right? We believe we’re making a real choice. We believe we’re playing a positive expected value game by making that choice. We forget that making a choice on their terms and using their language is itself a choice.
I’ve written a lot about Nudging States and Nudging Oligarchs, and I won’t repeat all that here. If you want to know where I’m coming from, start with this note from two years ago: Clever Hans.
I will repeat this, though.
What do we DO about our Hollow Markets and our Broken Politics?
Actively engage with yourself to recognize how many of your behavioral choices in the world of investing and politics aren’t a free choice at all, but are instead derived from a clever “choice architecture” imposed by others. You probably won’t change your behavior. That’s kinda the point of these pleasantly skinned Hobson’s Choices — they’re offers you can’t refuse. But the day you recognize the choice architectures that enmesh us is the day you start making true choices. It’s the day you start thinking and reading differently. It’s the day that everything starts to change for yourself, your family, and your clients.
Actively engage with yourself to create a critical thinking curriculum that adds to your reservoir of free-thinking autonomy. Read more history. Read more biography. Read more science fiction. Every day. Watch a lot less CNBC and CNN and Fox and all the rest. I know we can’t wean ourselves from Facebook and Twitter. It’s our bottle and we’re addicted. I am, too. But take the time to listen to someone whose political or market views you emotionally dislike and force yourself to see the world through those views, not as an adversary but as another thinking, feeling human being. Every day. Educate yourself, don’t train yourself.
Actively engage with others to spread the word. To educate, not to train. We treat others as free-thinking autonomous human beings, not as manipulable objects. Never as objects, even if it means losing the client or losing the election. This is how we fix things. Bird by bird. Voice by voice. From below, not from above. As wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.
So I stand by all that. I think it’s all more important than ever. It’s a really good start on a personal regimen to resist the micro-structure of the Long Now, to keep your personal Neb in check.
But it’s not enough. There’s not enough time.
We have to confound the stolen tells. At scale. At global scale.
So I’ve got two new ideas … two forms of public resistance to share with you … two forms of hiding your tell that I think can scale … two forms of bypassing the fear and stimulus systems that make cartoons of us at every turn. One for politics and one for economics.
In politics, I want to start a movement to encourage write-in candidates. I want to give everyone the tools and the information they need to bypass the political party system. We organize to do this, using the Epsilon Theory megaphone as our springboard. Maybe we write in joke candidates. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we write in ourselves. It won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?
In economics, I want Epsilon Theory pack members to know who the other Epsilon Theory pack members are, so that they can do business with and share information with like-minded people directly. I want to give Epsilon Theory pack members the tools and the information they need to bypass the information system of the tech giants and Wall Street. Obviously this is a voluntary thing. Don’t worry, pack-members-who-work-at-the-Fed, I’m not going to out you (and there are a lot of you). But we have a LOT of people actively engaged with Epsilon Theory. Tens of thousands of people, all over the world, in every financial institution of any significance you can name. Our active cooperation in a mutual game without fear, without stimulus, without cartoons … a mutual game of full-hearted engagement … it won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?
The Long Now
Part 3: Wink
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As always, nicely done, Ben. I’ll need a few reads to fully digest, but I hope to meet and work with Pack members in the future.
Since learning the concept of thinking from first principles, it amazes me how widely the concept applies. When thinking about Nudges, finding a pack, keeping a personal Neb in check, etc., so much can be (dare I say) solved by figuring out one’s first principles and acting on them.
We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
Thank you Ben for my aha moment today.
I love the idea of the write-in candidate at scale. If we can nominate and elect from a pool of candidates who are NOT seeking power and oblige them to serve, perhaps we can staff the government with fewer corruptible psychopaths.
Thanks, Ben, for helping pull all of the pieces together. In my early years, I always felt that if I voted for someone with honesty and integrity, they would do the right thing when they were elected, regardless of experience. Unfortunately, those candidates have been few & far between. It’s time to find those candidates again, and drag them kicking & screaming into the White House if necessary, because we know they will do the right thing when they get there. Thank you for re-opening my eyes to alternatives: to go after what we want and need, instead of what someone else offers.
The content is spot on, as usual. I had to comment on a sense of deja vu reading it. As if Neb and I were in the same poker game at the same stage in life. My college fraternity poker games devolved in a similar fashion. Much higher stakes, IOU’s, games like High/Low Anaconda, Between the Sheets, 222/727, and my favorite (which I called EVERY time it was my turn to deal) Macintosh. But not just Macintosh, which at its core was just Five card Stud. Macintosh involved all of Nebs derivatives if called correctly. The wild card was whatever your down card happened to be. There was also pot matching to stay in with visible pairs that showed up as the cards were dealt (giving that player a minimum of 3 of a kind). I added Hi/Low, and best of all two potential card “shucks” or replacements after all cards were dealt for minimal sums given the pot sizes that developed. This could completely change a hand on the final two draws with pots of $150-300 on the line in a .25, .50, $1 nominal stakes game. A full house was the minimum expectation for a win and I beat brothers confidently holding 4 of a kind with straight flushes so many times I wondered why no one else saw that was the only hand to play for!
Reminiscing aside, why did I need to comment?
With my “success” I accumulated lots of ink scrawled on odd-shaped pieces of notebook paper. But, at the core we were all nearly broke college students. Losing $20 was demoralizing, losing $50 consumed 2 months of spare spending money. The game disbanded when too many of the players were so underwater and unable to pay that it became irrational to extend more credit. I honored my debts, many of my brothers did not. The classic case of being ahead “on paper”.
If the pack has an intention, and we start to get noticed and disrupt the older systems, aren’t we just another set of intentions with an agenda and with new power of visibility to move our agenda forward?
Can we really do something in a systematic way that doesn’t become another system with a life of its own?
Isn’t our true bottom-line hope, that we act as individuals, even concerning the pack? It seems like a hope based on a new way of being, too easily becomes the new way of being and nudging?
Is there a right way to structure a system? Aren’t all systems started with a revolution to break out of the old systems, that have started to serve themselves?
Weren’t democracy, and communism, and christianity, all started with the individuals who believed in a new better way of being?
It seems all systems, once the revolution has occurred, become the new reality and life goes on, and people percolate to the top of the system who like working in the system more than living day to day as an individual.
7 Individuals are people who have a certain path of life experience that make them DECIDE to be an individual and live by their own judgement day to day.
I really love your ideas regarding how to be, because they are so hopeful and feel like better expressions of how I want to be.
But I question trying to turn that into a new group think or coordinated action, versus: lets just be the best example we can be to our kids and friends and everyone we bump into.
Sincerely love your sharing of thoughts, and invitation to my perspective.
I am guessing that considerations exactly like these are why BH hasn’t just started up an ET social network.
In the early 70s I joined a casual game at my frat with players who were regulars. I treated it initially as a bit of low stakes fun. As the evening progressed it became clear that there was game management going on by the other corners. While I cannot prove it, there was likely betting pool sharing. When I cleared my lines I left the game. The money didn’t matter, what mattered was the game was wrong. Forty-five years later I’ll exchange pleasantries at rare social interactions, but there is still no trust. Character is an early tell, and tells rarely change.
This is great stuff Ben and I am glad you are leading the charge!
Like many of your readers, I am sure, these ideas resonate with me because I have been reflecting on them for a long time. Your exposition, however, has helped enormously to crystallize them. Thank you!
In regard to your advice to “Actively engage with others to spread the word”, I’ve got to say I have had little success with such efforts thus far. What I typically encounter is that people are either too busy or not especially interested. Living lives as “free-thinking autonomous human beings” is incredibly important to some of us, but seemingly not important at all to many. I’m open to suggestions.
As for “active cooperation in a mutual game without fear, without stimulus, without cartoons … a mutual game of full-hearted engagement” - I’m game! I look forward to engaging and conversing with other pack members.
To question 1. Discovery of ourselves as a species is a genetic agenda. We can’t outplan nature’s timeframe. This supercedes intent.
In order to prevent the natural evoltution of (all?) human systems as noted by ST above, a disruption of the ‘necessary means of exchange’ and ‘store of value’ might need to occur. (Crypto is not that disruptive.) IMO
A breath of fresh air in a fetid swamp of political and economic thought. How refreshing. Two ways to bypass the swamp and clean it up. Count me in.
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