Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Addicted to Life

In gaming theory, there is the concept of the martingale. Imagine you are sitting at a roulette table. The initial bet is 1 dollar, and you bet on black. Now, if it comes up black you win a dollar, but if it comes up red you lose a dollar. The martingale theory states that the only effective way to win is to double your bet every time you lose. If N is the amount you bet when you win, then the sum of your losses is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + ...+ N/2. If we factor out N, then we get 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + .... 1/N. Now, the infinite sum Sigma(i=1, infinity) 1/(2^i) is equal to 1. Since N is a finite number, the finite sum Sigma(i=1, N) 1/(2^i) is less than 1. This means that since your losses are equal to N(1/2 + 1/4 + ... + 1/N), this number is slightly less than N. As long as you obey this strategy, you will always come out ahead.

Hence, doubling down.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to double down at life. A hard lesson, but one I've learned all too well the last few days. You can't keep losing and losing, and tell yourself that you'll make it up later, and hope to win. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you can't make it up. Sometimes things are for keeps, and you have to admit that you can't make things just like they were. Or would have been.

But you can make things better than they are now. I, like a lot of people, have the unfortunate habit of being addicted to life. "High on life" is such an oft-used statement that it's now a cliche. But life can be a drug, like any drug, and it can be addictive. A person gets caught up in life and allows it to run him, rather than the other way around. Little things suddenly become big things, and unimportant matters come to dominate your life. Every little thing becomes a crisis, and eventually comes paralysis. Overdose.

Like smashing your head against a wall. Why do you do that? Because it feels so good when I stop. And you want to stop. You double down, again and again, telling yourself that this time you'll win, that this will be the win that takes you out of the red and into the black, and life keeps calling you back. Here, it says. Take a little more of what I have to sell you. It hurts so good, doesn't it?

What causes it? Who knows. The devil, maybe. Or maybe it's simply that rotten little flaw deep inside you, the one you hear as that little voice. The one that says, "Eat all the brownies." The one that says, "Run this red light." The one that says, "Cheat on your wife." The one that says, "Pull the trigger."

We live in the House of Destruction now. It's an opera house, and we stand where the acoustics are perfect to pick up that little voice. To amplify him and reflect him off every surface, so that we are buffeted on all sides. We hear that voice, and more and more are listening. Everyday, that whispering little voice gains more and more disciples.

Bet again. You'll win it back. Double down. Bet it all.

Time to kick the pusher out the door, to shut that little voice up. To live and not be lived.

Time to break the habit.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Interesting analogy with martingales to real life, though I have a humble correction to offer- and I think that it reinforces your analogy.

The pertinent conclusion of martingale theory (or rather, the Martingale Convergence Theorem) isn't that doubling down is the only way to come out ahead (it isn't). Rather, it's that in a game that's fair or losing, you can only guarantee eventual success if you're allowed to go arbitrarily far into negative results (debt) along the way. If there's a point at which you could go bankrupt, there's no strategy that always wins.

And that's just what you're talking about in real life- because there are losses (material and spiritual) you can't afford to take, there comes a point where you just have to accept the consequences. You can't keep on "doubling down" forever- you end up as Enron.