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Rock, Paper, Scissors
March 16, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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There is no guaranteed winning choice in most complicated situations

People like the idea of causality. We use phrases like "A happened because B caused it." Given that there are causes, making choices is important. "He is rich because he bought Microsoft stock when he was young." Or "She left her keys in her car, of course it was stolen."

Without denying that there is causality, few people have failed to notice how complicated the world is. Causality is clear in simple Physics experiments and in many of the simple aspects of life. We can reasonably expect a car to start when the ignition is switched on, and if it does not, we can seek a cause, or hire an automobile mechanic to find it.

But life is complicated. Some things that tend to have many causes and effects that are hard to sort out are biology, economics, and anything that involves human relationships or a large number of human beings.

The game Rock, Paper, Scissors helps teach children important lessons about the complicated world. Rock smashes scissors, which cut paper, which wraps the rock. Rock wins against scissors but looses against paper. Each of the three choices can be a winner or loser depending on what the second player decides to choose.

In a fair game the two players reveal their choices (made by hand signals) at the same time. There can be strategy involved, based on expectations about how one's opponent will play (like realizing an opponent never repeats the same choice twice in a row). But generally with two players each will win about half the time. And so loses about half the time.

In the rest of life situations are usually more complex, but one central theme remains true: no strategy, tactic, or individual choice will always work. The term for this quality is "indeterminate."

We try to keep the complexity at bay by making things simple for ourselves. Most common screws work with either a Philips head or slot head screwdriver. Most people prefer driving cars with automatic transmissions rather than trying to manually chose the right gear all the time. Most people choose a political party and vote for that party's candidates rather than spending a lot of time investigating each candidate in each election. And mostly that works. Despite their complexity, most modern bridges that get built don't fall down, most of the time.

But when two humans, or two groups of humans, clash instead of cooperating, there will be a loser. There are also losing choices because the future is indeterminate.

Gambling and investing are a case to point. "Alice" has $1,000 that she does not need to pay bills. She owes $2,000 on a credit card at 12%. She has been thinking (at the urging of more affluent friends and family) of opening a brokerage account and buying her first stock shares, say Microsoft or Facebook. She also has a friend who bets on horses and is certain that she can get $8,000 for her $1,000 if she will just bet on Whipping Star in the 3rd race. Or she could just keep the money as cash.

I would advise her to pay down the credit card. 12% interest saved, guaranteed. We won't know Alice's best move until some time later. If Whipping Star does win his race, we'll know that was the best choice, but there was no way to know that in advance. Even fixed horse races sometimes go awry (as when a dope-up horse breaks a leg). In a year a particular stock might be up over 12%. In a year we can certainly retroactively pick stocks that went up over 12%. But no one knows in advance, with absolute certainty, how well any company's stock will do in any given period of time. Stocks go down as well as up.

Uncertainty rules in relationships. Can you trust Judas? Should you date the blond clean-cut medical student? Who is a good mentor, who is trouble best avoided?

Then there is war. A nasty business all around, and filled with uncertainty. Great generals sometimes lose battles, incompetent generals sometimes win, and wars seemingly won can turn into defeat. The strategy that won the last war may be a losing strategy in the next war.

Paper, rock, scissors. You can win by cheating, if your opponent does not know you are cheating. The basic cheating method is choosing shortly after your opponent has shown her hand.

Cheating reality is a lot harder. Cheating in a poker game can have much worse consequences than simply losing the game. Cheating in business can land you in jail. Cheating in a relationship can be the end of a relationship. Cheating can often be beaten by not cheating, and by refusing to play with cheaters.

Scissors, paper, rock. Everyone has a childhood, but not everyone learns the same lessons from childhood, even when you account for differing environments or parents.

Given the complexity of reality, it is best to keep on one's toes, so to speak. Understand the present as best you can. Anticipate the future as best you can. But don't be too surprised by the unexpected. Being flexible rather than rigid is a good general strategy, but even that does not always work out in life.

Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at blogspot.com

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