Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Using models to explain life, success and the assholes around you.

This article might be a little "cheem" since I have just completed all 20 lectures of the Model Thinking course conducted by the University of Michigan, I think that of all the courses taught, this is probably the best one so far.

The central thesis of this lesson is that when it comes to prediction, we are much better having more models so that we have more tools to explain a certain phenomenon.

This article demonstrates a model  known as Colonel Blotto. This simple model had a deep impact on the way I think.

Imagine you have 100 unit of soldiers and plan to deploy them across three fronts. To win a war, you pit yourself against an opponent who also have 100 units of soldiers to be deployed against you. The winner of this game is the player who can deploy more soldiers than the enemy on 2 out of 3 fronts.

Some findings Colonel Blotto are as follows :

a) If you have advanced knowledge on how your opponent deploys, you can always deploy your soldiers to win 2 in out of 3 fronts ( Your opponent deploys 34/33/33. You can react by deploying 0/50/50.)
b) If no advanced information can be gained, your best strategy is to be as random and unpredictable as possible so that your opponent can't guess your next move.
c) If you can get advanced information, you can have a smaller army and still win 2/3 fronts.
d) If you have a numerical advantage against your opponent, you should try to limit the total number of fronts as much as possible to secure a majority victory.
e) Against an opponent with a stronger army, you need to fight a war on multiple fronts so that you can blunt his numerical advantage.

Of all the models taught to me, this one really blew my mind. It almost explains all the phenomenon which I have experienced in my study and working life. ( Note : I am an eccentric. It does not take a genius to figure out that I'm by nature, bizarrely competitive and approach my work and studies as a gamer and strategist. )

Here's how this model explains what I observed in my life:

a) Top-JC party animal stereotype

When us B-Grade Singaporeans meet up for drinks we always talk about campus life which involve a certain amount of hostel stay, many of us meet a particular hostelite which I would term the Top JC party animal.

Some folks will claim that this guy is from my JC. In my case, i always claim that the dude is from RJC or HCJC. It does'nt really matter, as the faces, JCs and names change, but the stories are the same.

This dude's hostel strategy is to get you to drink and party with him until late at night, then using some combination of  Red Bull and Coffee, he stays up late and studies until the next morning. After the exam, if he gets into the Dean's List, he will act as if he put in little effort ( a power move called sprezzatura ), if he fails, he's a party animal anyway so no loss of face there.

I was warned that I would meet friends like this in campus, so I devised a counter-strategy against them. I refused to party and did consistent work, so even though I was dumber than these guys, I would retain more information for the exams. I don't really care about being labelled a mugger-toad because if I really had any natural intelligence, I would have been in the gifted program and would probably be in MIT anyway.

This is Classic Blotto in action, expanding the new front on Partying to get you into investing your troops while keeping strong troop detachment on Academic performance.

Well played !

b) Latently Competitive Family Man

I really hate the LCFM, the engineering faculty is full of these fuckers and I don't seem to be able to develop a counter strategy until much later in my life when I became much more mellow and mature. The LCFM had shit grades and shit ECA, he can't even do engineering work, so he goes to a secondary school to teach Physics ( or E Math if he's truly hopeless ). He marries his University sweetheart 1 year after graduation and invites you his housewarming party, then he smugly plays a family card against the hard-charging yuppy, spouting Chinese philosophy on work-life balance and mocking you with his balanced approach to life.

Well, Confucius hates you and so do I !

Another Classic Blotto, opening a new front on Family while the rest of the world is focused on Making Money to win one front first, then applying psychological pressure to get you to reduce your initial deployment.

c) Involuntary Dilettante

I would like to propose that there is a third stereotype I would term the Involuntary Dilettante. You may meet a lot of folks like this at work or in school, but in my opinion, this stereotype is to be pitied.

Imagine a successful woman who has it all - work, family, children and a good marriage. Most real woman are not Marissa Mayer and have to compete on more fronts against each other, as they are judged on many more dimensions than men (If you're a guy with gold coming out of your arse, only Thomas Piketty will judge you).

If you are normal career woman with average looks and average qualifications, trying trying to juggle everything and losing out on every front is a possible reality. The Colonel Blotto game predicts that you will try to attack every front at the same time so that you can luck out on your career or your husband. As in all things in life, very few actually "make it".

While it's only a mental construct, Colonel Blotto has given me some insights on life :

a) Society values some things more than others. It's your choice to determine how to deploy your troops. My deployment is Financial Independence and not Material Pleasures. I also have a large deployment in Inter-disciplinary Knowledge. I'm betting that society rewards both.
b) If you choose a front not valued by society, then enjoy your private victory and don't gripe about being under-appreciated. Singapore is not very open-minded to alternative forms of success anyway.
c) If you are competitive by nature and want to kick ass. Then you need to have a large deployment in as few fronts as possible. This a classic Alpha Male maneuver. Focus on the shit you are good at but having something around so you can pivot.
d) If you feel disadvantaged because of your own circumstances, then have many varying fronts and hope to luck out. ( Multiple hobbies and interests may lead to serendipitous financial rewards or prestige.)

I think I'm going to toy with the models from the Coursera class to predict the behavior of the people I meet.

Having this toolbox really has the ability to predict and explain the behaviour of the folks around you.

Who knows, maybe one day, I can even apply this into investing.


  1. Wah, I think "a bit" is too lenient.. I can't even catch a single ball! lol

  2. Maybe you google "Colonel Blotto", kinda hard to express in words.

    I also don't have a more interesting subject matter to write about this week.

  3. A masterpiece! Would love to hear more from u! I have similar ideas too when playing rpg. Each has his own dice role to determine initial characteristics (like strength, int, charisma etc), then as u level up with experience, you also have to allocate points to these characteristics. The choice in which u point in these points determine your success in levelling up and also ease of levelling up. Classic colonel blotto? Haha

  4. I was thinking about the stand off between Leonidas and the Persians in Thermopylae. Leonidas is obviously facing a far more numerically advantaged Persians, but the terrain is not to the Persians advantage (according to the movie, it's just a small pass that allows only a few men to pass through, hence numerical advantage of the Persians is moot). They went through another route to increase the number of fronts so that more of their soldiers can engage.

    Seems like it contradicts (d). But I guess Colonel Blotto's war is fought on open plains, with equal fighting capabilities for both sides and where terrain isn't going to make much of a difference.

  5. You raised a good point, in such a case, the front is so special, Colonel Blotto may have to make a modification to his model.

    This front multiplies a defender's forces by 100 and divides the attacker 100.

  6. D&D is a very elaborate form of an agent-based model.

    It is so cool that it takes a real person to simulate the behavior of one agent.