Rock, paper or scissors

December 20, 2007

[spoiler]

  • 22 December 2007
  • NewScientist.com news service
  • Michael Brooks

YOU know the score: paper wraps rock, rock blunts scissors, scissors cut paper… It’s just a trivial way of making decisions about whose round it is at the bar, who gets the TV remote, that kind of thing. It’s something like tossing a coin, right?

You couldn’t be more wrong. Rock, paper, scissors (RPS) – also known as RoShamBo – is a startling game of strategy that reveals both the fickleness and the limitations of the human mind. There are RPS world championships worth big money, fiercely contested tournaments to find the best RPS computer programs, and heated arguments over which is the optimal RPS strategy. When millions of dollars have been made on the throw of a hand, it is hard to argue this is an insignificant debate. So, how do you win at RPS?

From a mathematical perspective, RPS is a function known as an intransitive relation, which means it creates a loop of preferences that has no beginning and no end, defying standard notions of hierarchy. Though each item is better than some other item, it is impossible to define what is “best”, and this makes it interesting to mathematicians. “It makes you think precisely about what you mean by ‘is better than’,” says John Haigh, a mathematician at the University of Sussex in the UK. “Context is everything.”

Given the interest among mathematicians, it was almost inevitable that computer programmers would get involved and try to produce the ultimate player. According to game theory, the optimal strategy is straightforward: make your throws random. If no one can guess what you’re going to play, they can’t devise a winning strategy against you. That may sound like a simple thing to do, but it isn’t – not even for computers – as David Bolton, a programmer for a finance company based in London, has demonstrated.
Bolton, an RPS enthusiast, has been running a computer RPS league on www.cplus.about.com. The competitors supplying their game-playing code come from as far afield as the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden and China, and their programs, or bots, use a wide range of strategies. Surprisingly, the least successful bots are those that seem to make their choice based on nothing more than random numbers. “These all tend to be at the bottom of the league,” Bolton says.

The explanation must be that these poor performers are not truly random. If there are any patterns at all, well-programmed bots will pick them out – and work out how to exploit them. Iliatsi, currently the leader in Bolton’s league, has 10 strategies to deploy against its opponents, analysing their previous moves, for instance, to find a pattern and thus work out the most likely next move. Iliatsi, created by a Greek programmer, looks set to win when the championship winds up this month.

Though competitions between programs are a challenge for the programmers, they are of limited interest to everyone else, says Perry Friedman, who created RoShamBot, one of the first RPS bots. Computer RPS players are simply too good. “It’s much more interesting to find games that play well against people,” Friedman says. So when Friedman created RoShamBot, he deliberately refrained from making it invincible. While the program is powerful, its charm, he says, is that it doesn’t just mash you into a pulp. You can play against RoShamBot at http://zonker.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/roshambot.

Since graduating from Stanford, Friedman has worked as a programmer for IBM and Oracle and as a professional poker player. In the latter pursuit, playing RPS against other humans has been a big help, Friedman says, because live-action RPS teaches you about the peculiarities of human thought. In RPS, the golden rule is to be unpredictable, but without extensive training humans are hopeless at this. “People tend to fall into patterns,” Friedman says. “They tell themselves things like, ‘I just went rock twice, so I shouldn’t do rock a third time, because that’s not random’.”

Worse, people tend to project patterns on their opponents. “They see patterns where there are none,” Friedman says. This, he adds, is a major source of complaints in online gaming: when players lose because of something they perceive as a too-lucky dice throw, say, they think the computer they are playing against must be rigged. “What are the odds double-six came up right when he needed it?” players ask. The thing is, as Friedman points out, “They don’t notice all the times it didn’t come up.”

If you are going to win at RPS, Friedman’s advice is to think – but not too much. Of course you want to randomise your throws, but once the game is under way you should look for patterns. If your opponent is human, the chances are he or she works – consciously or unconsciously – with a sequence in their head. Spot it, and they are toast.

Another tip is don’t throw rock in your first game. This strategy won the auction house Christie’s millions of dollars in 2005 when a wealthy Japanese art collector couldn’t decide which firm of auctioneers should sell his corporation’s collection of Impressionist paintings. He suggested they play RPS for it. Christie’s asked for suggestions from their employees, one of whom turned out to have daughters who played RPS in the schoolyard. “Everybody expects you to choose rock,” the girls said, so their advice was: go for scissors. Christie’s acted on this expert tip, while rival auction house Sotheby’s went for paper – and lost the business.

Scissors is still a good starting throw even if you are playing against someone experienced: they won’t go for rock because that’s seen as a rookie move, so the worst you are likely to do is tie. Once things are under way, different techniques come in. You could try the double bluff, where you tell your opponent what you’re going to throw – then do it: no one believes you’ll do it, so they won’t play the throw that beats the throw you are playing. Then, if your mind goes blank, play the throw that would have been beaten by your opponent’s previous throw: some kind of subconscious activity seems to encourage players – especially those who are not feeling at the top of their game – to aim to beat their own preceding throw.

When all else fails, the rule is “go with paper”, because rock comes up more often than it would by chance. In 1998, Mitsui Yoshizawa, a mathematician at Tokyo University of Science, studied throws from 725 people and found that they threw rock 35 per cent of the time. Paper came in at 33 per cent and scissors at 31 per cent. Facebook has an online game called Roshambull which has logged 10 million throws in over 1.6 million games. Here the statistics are 36 per cent rock, 30 per cent paper and 34 per cent scissors. “Players clearly have a slight preference for rock, and that affects the distribution of all the plays,” says Graham Walker of the World RPS Society. This pleases him, since it shows how winning something like the world RPS championship involves skill, not luck. “Given people’s preference for rock, it is impossible to claim that RPS is a game of chance,” he says.

So there you go: if arguments over which TV channel to watch are a regular feature of your holidays, now you know how to get your own way more often than not. Do a little study, practise against an online trainer, then, wide-eyed, make what looks like an innocent suggestion: shall we settle this with rock, paper, scissors?

From issue 2635 of New Scientist magazine, 22 December 2007, page 66-67

 

[/spoiler]

 

The science behind everything….

I love these articles that are about nothing really, but are still so interesting you read them.

Maybe I’m just sadder than i originally thought.


Deal agreed in Bali climate talks

December 15, 2007

A compromise deal for a new international climate change agenda was agreed at the UN summit in Bali today.The move was hailed by environment secretary, Hilary Benn, as “an historic breakthrough”.

Ministers from around 180 countries were united in accepting the agenda for a global emissions cuts agreement to launch negotiations for a post-2012 agreement to tackle climate change.

Consensus for the road map followed a dramatic U-turn by the US, which had threatened to block the deal at the 11th hour and been booed by other countries.

It dropped its opposition to poorer countries’ calls for technological and financial help to combat the issue.

[spoiler]

Applause

The sudden reversal by the US in the marathon talks which saw the country duelling with European envoys was met with rousing applause.

While it will be two years before a final deal on post-2012 is likely to be struck, countries have been fighting for the kinds of things they want to see on the table for those talks.

Mr Benn said: “This is an historic breakthrough and a huge step forward.

“For the first time ever all the world’s nations have agreed to negotiate on a deal to tackle dangerous climate change.”

He said it was the compelling clarity of the science and the strength of the case for urgent action that has made this agreement possible.

But it was political leadership that made it happen, Mr Benn added.

He continued: “Our changing climate has changed our politics, because we knew that we could not let people down.

“We came here saying we wanted a road map that included every country and covered emission reductions from developed countries and fair and equitable contributions from developing countries.

“We leave here with all of this and more – a groundbreaking agreement on deforestation, and others on adaptation and technology.

“And against predictions these negotiations will be guided by ambitious goals for emission reductions.

“What we have achieved here has never been done before.

“Less than a year ago, many would have said this agreement was impossible.

“Now we must make it work, and in the next two years agree the detail of a comprehensive global climate deal that will take us beyond 2012.”

The agreement follows two weeks of insults, arguments and threatened boycotts and trade sanctions, as countries wrangled over who should take responsibility for cutting carbon pollution

UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who returned to Bali as the conference stretched into another day, had earlier said he was “disappointed” at the lack of progress.

A highly emotional Mr Ban had told delegates: “Now the hour is late. It’s time to make a decision.

“You have in your hands the ability to deliver to the people of the world a successful outcome to this conference.”

Ministers worked through the night to hammer out the details of an agenda for the agreement, which will replace the current Kyoto Protocol.

The EU conceded on one of the main sticking points – the inclusion in the road map of a reference of 25% to 40% emissions cuts by developed countries by 2020, which scientists have said are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

The EU had insisted the figures were in the document because they are based on the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and an ambitious road map was needed.

But the US demanded – and won – their removal, claiming they could “prejudge” outcomes of negotiations over the past two years.

This morning the Europeans accepted a road map in which the targets were missing, as were references to the need for emissions to peak within 10 to 15 years and for global greenhouse gas output to halve by 2050.

Instead the document said countries recognise that “deep cuts in global emissions” will be required, and calls for a “long-term global goal for emissions reductions”.

In turn the US conceded over the issue in the road map of how much developing countries need to do to curb their emissions.

Paula Dobriansky, the head of the US delegation, said: “I think we have come a long way here.

“In this, the United States is very committed to this effort and just wants to really ensure we all act together.

“We will go forward and join consensus.”

Campaigning groups said the deal had been stripped of important targets and hit out at the US’s “wrecking policy”.

Keith Allott, Head of Climate Change at WWF UK, said:

“We are not at all pleased.

“We were looking for a road map with a destination.”

But he praised the talks having been brought back from the brink of collapse, with the alliance of the G77 developing countries with the EU.

He said positive aspects included the beginning of a framework to ramp up the finance to help poorer countries adapt and potential for “real movement” with technology transfer.

Looking ahead, Mr Allott hoped for a new administration in the US.

“We are seeing a dynamic situation in many of the countries,” he said.

“We have had a sea change in Australia.”

Greenpeace said that the agreement had been stripped of the emission reduction targets that humanity needs.

“The Bush administration has unscrupulously taken a monkey wrench to the level of action on climate change that the science demands,” said Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International.

“They’ve relegated the science to a footnote.”

Greenpeace said it remains confident that mounting public pressure on every continent will force governments over the next two years to agree “inevitable” deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The group criticised the US’s strategy, saying the Bush administration was “shamed” by the firm resolve of the developing countries China, India, Brazil and South Africa, who came to Bali with concrete proposals.

Nelson Muffuh, a Christian Aid senior climate change policy analyst, said: “For most of the conference, the US delegation in particular proved a major obstacle to progress.

“They appeared to operate a wrecking policy, as though determined to derail the whole process.

“We welcome their last minute agreement to support the consensus in accepting the Bali road map, having said less than an hour earlier that it was unacceptable, and we sincerely hope they are serious in their stated desire to negotiate.

“But the way ahead will be hard. The Bush administration has said throughout that it wants to see developing countries agree to cuts in carbon emissions.

“A number of emerging economies put creative, flexible plans on the table, but will have little incentive to negotiate further until the industrialised world agrees deeper cuts.

“Climate change is already having a devastating impact on the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities through drought and flooding.”

He said the lack of clear targets in the road map leaves them exposed to further catastrophe.

“We were expecting a road map, and we’ve got one,” said Mr Muffuh. “But it lacks signposts and there is no agreed destination.”

A spokesman for the Carbon Markets Association (CMA) welcomed the breakthrough “of a road map to engaging all nations, including the US, in meaningful negotiations toward long-term commitments by 2009.

“The process to 2009 should at a minimum deliver an extension of the first phase binding commitments beyond 2012 as well the engagement of a broader group of nations with binding commitments.”

The US is the only major industrial nation to reject Kyoto.

President George Bush has complained that it would unduly damage the US economy, and emission caps should have been imposed on China, India and other fast-growing developing countries.

The Bush administration favours a voluntary approach with each country deciding how it can contribute in place of internationally negotiated and legally binding commitments.

[/spoiler]

Source

So the US makes some concessions to strike a deal. But not before ‘targets’ are take out of the deal, which in my opinion taints the whole ‘historic moment’. It’s something, but not the everything I was hoping for. And i don’t think I’m the only one.

With emerging economies coming to the fore as major contributors to climate change, fair or not, we in the west need to lead the way and try and compensate for the damage these relatively new, to the climate problem, countries are causing.  Now is the time, and the USA needs to put the world before themselves for a change.