Archive for March, 2013

Prisoners’ Dilemma Part 1– The Game

The other day I stumbled across an old game known as “Prisoners’ Dilemma”.  I believe the first time I learned of the game was a general psychology class.  For some reason, this time around the game really captured my interest.  The rules are extremely simple and straight forward, but actually playing it is anything but.


Prisoners’ Dilemma– The Game

A game of Prisoners’ Dilemma consists of two opponents and a neutral banker.  The two players each choose to play one of two possible cards: “Cooperate” or “Defect”.  Players each play their cards face down such that the other player (nor the banker for that matter) has no way of knowing which card was selected.  Once both players have made their choice and played a card, the banker reveals both cards and then pays out to the players as follows:

Both Cooperate $300 to each player
One Defect, one Cooperate
$500 to player playing Defect, MINUS $100 to player playing Cooperate.
Both Defect ZERO payout to either player


Iterative Rounds

Playing a single game of Prisoners’ Dilemma isn’t very interesting:  A purely rational player, carefully thinking through each possibility and weighing them in her mind will realize the following:  If her opponent other player plays “Cooperate”, the best card to play is “Defect”, scoring the $500 prize!  Incidentally, if the other player chooses “Defect”, “Defect” is still the best card to play, protecting one’s self from the $100 penalty.  So “Defect” is the only card that makes any sense to play.  Assuming that the other player is also rational, she will also reason out that “Defect” is the only reasonable card to play.  Thus, the single game is deterministic and extremely uninteresting.

If, however, one plays Prisoners’ Dilemma as an iterated series of games with neither player knowing when the game will end, the game loses it’s single outcome, deterministic nature.  Knowing that one will be interacting with one’s opponent for some time to come gives the rational player more space:  They may build trust and mutually prosper.  They may betray trust and reap the high-value payoff of doing so, or may suffer the indignities of betrayal at the hand of their opponent .  They may choose to immediately retaliate against such betrayals, or craftily lie in wait for a better opportunity to serve up revenge not only cold, but lucrative as well.


Two Mental Models

I think there are two very interesting ways to think about Prisoners’ Dilemma:  One is to treat the game as a study in psychology.  You take to the streets in the role of the banker, and ask strangers to play against each other.  You study not only what the individuals are choosing but why.  You look for patterns of behavior and perhaps correlate them with other ways of grouping individuals (age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, etc).  Your hope, and the question you are trying to answer, is something about the nature of the human condition.  Why do we make the decisions we do?  When do we prefer to cooperate with each other and when do we prefer to benefit ourselves at any cost?

The other interesting way to think about Prisoners’ Dilemma is to treat the game as a puzzle to be solved:  How exactly does it work?  What methods are available to use in playing the game and when should they be used to secure the largest possible win?  Are there robust strategies available which are relatively simple and yet (think: Tic-Tac-Toe) guarantee a win (or at least a tie) every time they are used?  Rather than using the game as a tool to understand something more about who we are, your goal, instead, is to try to understand the nature of the tool itself.


When do Cheaters Prosper?

To some, this latter way of thinking about the game may seem mundane, academic and lacking appeal.  Until such time as the multi-million dollar Prisoners’ Dilemma tournament is announced, knowing exactly how to win the game is unlikely to be of real benefit to anyone.  That is true enough, but  has nothing to do with my interest in truly understanding the game and how to win it.

Parallels for Prisoners’ Dilemma are extremely common, not only in “natural” systems (like animals sharing food, removing parasites, protecting each other’s young, neighbors helping each other) but also in things particularly human:  Economics, business, politics, foreign-policy, etc.


Can “Nice Guys” Finish First?  When and How?

Any situation in which individuals may benefit by cooperating is likely subject to many, if not all the same drivers within the Prisoners’ Dilemma Game.  In all these situations, there is a clear temptation to cheat– to find, for example, ourselves pressed into a “mandatory” fishing trip when our neighbors are moving their belongings out of their home and into the moving truck– but still avail ourselves of their assistance when we are the ones moving.

If we understand the forces that drive the game, we can look to find similar drivers in life.  If there are particularly robust strategies or patterns of behavior that are particularly influential on the outcome of the game, we should expect to find them extensively employed, or a reasons why not.


Personal Update

Hi folks!  I’ve been off the radar for a while… Which I suppose is really saying something considering how relatively stealthy I was when I considered myself “on the radar”.  If you’ve reached out and I haven’t responded, I assure you it was not intentional and I apologize.  Please resend!  I’m even trying to use Facebook for the first time since I signed up for it about 12 years ago.  If you know me at all, THAT should totally blow you away.  So, if you’ve tried to be friends with me previously to no avail, please, give it another shot. 🙂

In any case, for those of you that have been wondering/asking what I’m up to, here is the skinny.

Adobe and I parted ways at the very end of 2011.  It was a very difficult change for me.  For the previous 12-13 years so much of my identity had been tied up as the “CTO of Omniture”, that putting that behind me left me with a bit of a crisis.  It had become clear that Adobe wasn’t the right place for me, so I wasn’t necessarily sad about leaving, but at the same time, I had breathed so much of myself into that company that I felt a lot like a parent abandoning a child.  Most acutely I missed my customers, my products, and most of all, the amazing team that I’d been a part of and largely built.  It was extremely disorienting, and took probably 3 months just to kind of sort things out in my head.  I still miss the relationships and the challenges that Adobe represented.

This week was the Adobe Summit.  It is the second one I haven’t been involved with in the last 15 years.  Of course, in many ways it is a relief.  I’m sure you can imagine the kind of effort the team puts into putting on a show of that size.  But I also miss it a lot…  Especially that closing session.

It was always so nerve-wracking to put ourselves out there like that and take your feedback, not the least of which because it was the very last session of the conference and at that point you all had given me a whole new perspective on the term “sleep deprivation”.  However, the reward of interacting with you vastly exceeded any of that “pain”.  Nothing energized my team and I more than hearing the frank feedback and subsequent discussion that followed, and then getting a feel for how many of you felt the same.  It was the number one most motivating thing about Summit for me, and I miss that a lot.

It has been gratifying to see my friends at Adobe continue to be successful.  Similar to the parent metaphor I mentioned earlier, I can’t help but take pride in the growth and success.  Seeing the amazing building in Lehi, the current strength of the stock price right now, and favorable brand and buzz the company and the products continue to foster all help me feel like all the sacrifice was more than worth it.  This is particularly true when I think back to the humble beginnings of it all.  It is hard to believe how far it has all come.  I tip my hat to the team, and congratulate them on their continued success.  And, childish as it may be, I can’t resist saying, “I told you so!”

On leaving Adobe, the sheer number of interesting opportunities available was overwhelming.  There were so many things I could see that would work well as the basis for starting a company, plenty of start-ups looking to flesh out their team with some experience, and even almost all of the well-established and admired Internet “elite” reached out to see if there was a fit.  The only thing more surprising to me that the number of opportunities was how little excitement I felt for any of them.  The attention was certainly flattering, and the opportunities definitely first-rate, but none of them felt quite right…

I tend to manage my life with to do lists (all hail the smart phone!).  I have no less than 4 of them (there are actually more, but I’m simplifying for the sake of clarity and because the truth is embarrassing).  One contains things that must be done in the next day or two or there will be serious consequences.  The others are rather uncreatively called “High”, “Med”, and “Low”.  At the time I left Adobe, I hadn’t even looked at the medium and low lists for several years.  Rather things would just keep getting added to these lists, or bumped into them from off the high list when I realized it really wasn’t that urgent.

With this HUGE backlog of things I wanted to do, I decided not to go to work right away, but rather indulge myself by scratching the itch I’d felt for so long. I’d always told myself that pursuing these things sounded better than it would ever feel, and that as much as I felt I wanted to do some of these things, it wasn’t a big deal because as soon as I did them, I wouldn’t find them all that satisfying.

The opposite proved to be true.  In a smaller sense (I mean, what could possibly be more satisfying that to have been such an integral part of the success of Omniture) I was surprised to find that it was vastly MORE satisfying that I ever expected.  It has been funny to engage with some of you and to see your bewilderment at how I have not kept up with all the latest developments in the analytics and optimization spaces.  Honestly, it has taken a fair bit of effort to disengage and deliberately spend my time trying NOT to think about those things.

That isn’t to say I haven’t been “working”… There hasn’t been a week that I haven’t engaged in the software world in some fashion.  I’ve had a fair number of consulting projects, serve on a number of advisory boards, and once a month or so I get asked to just come in and listen and give feedback to various companies who think I might have something to share (may the powers that be protect them from my “advice” 🙂 ).

During the last couple of months, all this has changed.  I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the sorry state of software in so many areas and how much could be done to make people’s lives better.  I haven’t come anywhere close to emptying the Med and Low lists, but all the same, I think I’ve reached the point of decreasing returns.  Just as I used to long to invest in some of these personal areas, I’ve developed a real itch to get back out into the business world and make things happen.

As I’ve resurveyed the market for opportunities, I’ve thus far managed to pare it down to a shortlist of five really great opportunities that I’m considering:

  • Two are software start-ups that have a really bright future.  Additionally, I can see how my participation could really make a difference in boosting them forward into success.
  • One is an idea of my own that I’d like to pursue.
  • One is a non-profit I’d like to start for which there is a desperate need and about which I’m passionate.
  • And the last one (and I mention this mostly for the benefit of those of you that know me well because I know you’ll laugh at just how bizarre this is and yet how perfectly it fits into my soap-opera like personal life) is a classified opportunity for the US Gov.  (When I was doing biological/medical research I had to get a security clearance for a couple of the projects I was working on.  None of that work was actually classified.  It was just funded, in part, by some government agencies who required the clearance, just in case they decided to classify it later.  Anyway, as a direct result of this I’ve been “noticed” and am being recruited into the black helicopter squad 🙂 )

I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have such a wide variety of options, but at the same time, it is proving extremely difficult to make a decision, and is responsible for no small amount of angst in my life right now.  Of course, these are exactly the kind of decisions that one hopes to be able to have available, and I hardly think that any one of them would be “wrong”.  But that is exactly what makes it so hard to choose what is “best”.  In any case, I hope to figure it out in the next month or so at most, and engage in my next adventure… If I can just manage to stay on top of Facebook, I may even keep you posted! 🙂