Imperfect Information

To me, it seems like human beings are preprogrammed to be obsessed with control. This makes sense from the “survive and procreate” point of view that engineered us over a few million years – the more elements of your existence that you can keep secured, the less risk and danger. And, when the desired outcomes were simple (e.g. don’t die), many factors could be controlled – living by a river meant reliable access to food and water, living with big groups meant reliable protection from predators or competitors, having members of the opposite sex around meant reliable access to sex. It makes sense that we have a strong inclination to “get our shit together”, “grow up”, “be mature” and generally control as many parts of our life as we can – we were trained to view these things as important for our own survival.

From what I can see, much of the “standard” course of human life is largely about the removal of uncertainty. If you have a babbling brook that suits your purposes just fine, is it worth it to go chasing waterfalls? What if you don’t find one? Or if, when you leave your brook behind, someone else claims it? What if the place you find on the other side isn’t nearly as good as what you already had? What if what if?

It’s hard for a non-poker-player to understand quite how much a poker player has to cope with uncertainty. As the desired outcome becomes increasingly abstract, and as randomness is increasingly introduced, it can become pretty maddening to try and hold onto control.

Here’s an example: we start with an assumption that our opponent has a better hand than us 10% of the time, and therefore we should call his bet. Then, we proceed to call his bet 10 straight times, and each time he has a better hand than us. Well, perhaps we have been unlucky, or “range cold”, and our call has still been great. Or, perhaps our assumption in the first place was completely wrong and our opponent has a better than us 90% of the time instead of 10%, and so we should never call. Or, perhaps there’s gradation – maybe it’s a 50%/50%. Even a great poker player can find themselves awash in self-doubt when everything they do seems to be wrong. Unfortunately, with imperfect information, you never get to know exactly what’s going on.

While probability and randomness might seem to be the underlying cause of this, they’re really just the bells and whistles, the accoutrement that makes the circus go ’round. The real source of the uncertainty lies inherent to the fact that you can’t read your opponent’s mind. And, to me, this is one of the most important lessons poker has ever taught me.

It doesn’t matter how well you know someone, your history, what you say to each other or do for each other, you can never really know what’s going on in their head, their heart, their feelings in that or any moment in time. This doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses or rely on people – of course we can. But, understanding the fundamental separation between you and absolute knowledge is critical to accepting your lack of control and, more bluntly, your lot in life. Not only is it OK to not know what someone is thinking, it’s okay to not always have to try to know either.

Last weekend, I attended a science conference on psychedelic drugs. To engage more deeply with the content, a friend and I began reading Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception“, an essay on the great writer’s experience with Mescaline. The concept that stuck out to me was, to paraphrase, a “valve of knowledge.” In my mind, I imagine it like a watercooler. The jug of the cooler is the entire knowledge of everything in the Universe – God, the Dharma-body, transcendence, whatever you want to call it. At the bottom, by the spout, we get a small stream of that consciousness by which we scurry about trying to make decisions, control our destinies, and live our lives. Huxley argues that psychedelic drugs help widen the spout, giving access (however brief and limited) to a bigger rush of the infinite cosmic wisdom.


is it just me or has Ignatius J. Reilly ruined the word “valve” forever

Along these lines, at the conference I heard a fascinating hypothesis called the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis”, which seeks to explain the sudden growth in early human brain sizes in the transition between pre-human primates to homosapiens. The basic idea is that a bunch of foraging primates accidentally started eating a shitton of psilocybin mushrooms, tripping face, opening the valve, widening the tap, developing abstract concepts like language and religion, and starting the upswing toward human-level consciousness. But, to even consider this (really cool and somehow totally plausible-feeling) hypothesis, you need to accept that there is an entire world of existent knowledge beyond what a person has the ability to perceive, and that acceptance by itself can be massive psychological challenge.

Take, for example, the concept behind Outkast’s Hey Ya. It starts with the narrator explaining that he knows his girl loves him and would never betray him. But then, the moment of doubt creeps into his mind. How well do I really know her? What really goes on inside of her mind?

Or, take Donnie Darko and the idea of dying alone. Namely, that everyone does it.

To me, this forms a good meditation. There are things I really greatly desire to know – inner thoughts and feelings of people I care about, consequences of different courses of action in my life. Sometimes, the “not-knowing” exacerbates insecurities. Sometimes, “not-knowing” allows my own fears or desires to fill in the gaps, leading to the dreaded “only hearing what you want to hear” or “always seeing monsters under the bed” (poker players will recognize both of these as naturally as starcrossed or jealous lovers do). But, not-knowing is okay, even if it’s hard.

I’m not entirely sure any of this writing makes sense, and it’s somewhat late and I’m quite tired, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my own back-and-forth with the concept of uncertainty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the below meme: 4578361_700b

I’ve been thinking about why I allow myself to live in my comfort zone (I can control it?) and how clearly I prefer living outside of it. So why don’t I just risk it? Why don’t I just allow the world of uncertainty to knock me around like a ship on the ocean? Why do I care so much about knowing everything?

I was about to launch into another longwinded and probably fruitless paragraph, but I think I will end this for now and pick it up on another day. Let me know what you think, if any of this made sense.

2 thoughts on “Imperfect Information

  1. Hi, Andrew – So this response isn’t quite as simple as, “Yes, guac is better in Mexico.” – Some times I’m not sure if your thoughts are literal or figurative, but here’s my response to dying alone. My work is all about people who are in the process of dying. The fear for me is not about dying alone as much as it is about managing through that entire process of “getting there” alone. The end game will be the death itself, which actually appears quite serene, i.e., you eventually fall into a deep sleep to coma to never waking up (I’ve been at the bedsides a g’zillion times). But what can be an excruciating undertaking up to that point is what concerns me about being alone. Personally, I’m not an obsessive worrier and never have been. Yet the leading-up-to-dying process holds more apprehension for me than dying itself. Because no matter how many people might surround you as you’re actually dying, that final moment of transition itself will always be alone.

  2. just want to let you know Andrew, I love reading your blog and check back every couple months to catch up on all your ideas! Keep it up! I followed you back in the day on DC, and began learning poker from your book Easy Game around 2012. Grind online now for a living and largely influenced by your thoughts, so always appreciate hearing your perspectives. keep it up man!

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