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In Our Time - Game Theory

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 10:08, Friday, 11 May 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Voltaire's Candide. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep -CM

Two men playing Paper, Scissors, Stone


Well, I was rather relieved there was not more mathematics, although having anticipated mathematics I'd made extra efforts before the programme. It's fascinating how ideas can be translated into algebra. Faraday, as I mentioned, was both fascinated and annoyed that Clerk Maxwell had done that with his famous equations.

There's no doubt, according to the three people who were round the table, that this game theory, which sounds like fun at the snooker table or on the Monopoly board, is, in fact, a chink in a new world which will be as important, or more important, than were the originally rather loose and marginal worlds of prime numbers, for instance. I was told by a young lad who works in my office here when I got back that all his science friends at university wanted to go into game theory.

So there! That is the future. Twitter thought so too - I'm told In Our Time was 'trending' this morning.

Afterwards I lurched out into the refreshing London rain and around to the recording studios, where I did the commentary for one of the new South Bank Shows we're doing for Sky Arts; this one on the Grime music which has come out of Bow. It is beyond the belief of Dickens. On one side of Bow is Canary Wharf, the biggest wealth-created part of Europe. On the other side is the new multi-billion pound Olympic Village. And between them is Bow which has one of the worst child poverty problems in the country. Or had. Now it is being hastily reconstructed. But out of it has come this music, Grime, from the three flats - literally three blocks of flats - and these young lads who've forced their way through, through studios called - understandably if you see them - the Dungeon, through local (very, very local) pirate radio stations, etc. It's a wonderful story in terms of endeavour and their determination to be British, and to have their music as British in their own dialect (east London) is - well, you might get round to seeing it.

So the commentary for that and then a stride down to the House of Lords (sorry about the repetitive nature of this), where there was a meeting with a couple of people who wanted to do programmes about - Cumbria! - and then lunch with Gillian Greenwood, with whom I've worked very happily in arts programmes for about thirty years now. She's working on the new series as well. She was the executive producer of the television series Class and Culture and we met to talk about possible future arts programmes. After which into the Chamber itself and listening to statements about the NHS and about security and chatting away to Baroness Bakewell, who is becoming not only a favourite but a star of the House of Lords. On some days she speaks in two debates.

Then - well, you'll be fed up with all this by now - back up Whitehall, where in the morning there had been two massive, loud and exciting demonstrations, and into Soho which is beginning to fascinate me more and more. Once the slut of London, it's now the chic of London. Small shops, every one. Not a chain store in sight. Street after street in this crannied square mile of small shops, dwellings, odd places. There is a mission centre for Chinese workers. There is a shop where you can get Brazilian waxing. There is a bow-fronted clothes shop with the title Sir Tom Baker over it and wonderful clothes in the middle. Lots of little high-powered clothes shops. Sort of Savile Row crossed with rock and roll. There are shops selling Christmas decorations and shops selling antique clothing. There are shops selling - well, all sorts of things which can't be mentioned in a family newsletter, but nevertheless there's a buzz about it, because the street talk and the street traffic is young people in the film and television business, so full of the feeling that this is the place to make the stuff.

And so a little drenched to the office and this newsletter and that's quite enough from me.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: One of the best bits was passing the Duke of Wellington in Wardour Street and being met by a bunch of exceedingly cheerful Northerners who wanted to shake hands, buy me a pint and talk about the North. Thank goodness I had a legitimate objective which was to get back to the office and get some work done so that people could go home on time.

PPS: And after the office back into Soho, trying to copy down signs of some of the shops for future reference, through Chinatown, making for Cecil Court, currently my favourite street in London. Perfect for browsing.


  • Comment number 1.

    I was very disappointed in the discussion on game theory on In Our Time yesterday, to the point where after half an hour I simply turned it off. Some apparently idiotic statements were made without being challenged – for example that everyone litters because of a calculation that it’s in their individual interests to do so, evidenced by the fact that there’s a lot of litter around. What about all the litterbins filling up on a daily basis? Are they produced by aliens? Clearly very many people don’t litter because they have a social conscience, or because they find all litter offensive. In general the discussion made no reference to values, and also very little reference to players’ assumptions about others’ decision-making – for example the apparent rationality of one prisoner’s calculation that he should confess, despite knowing that it’s in the best interests of them both if they don’t, completely breaks down if we allow him to work out that maybe the other prisoner can see that too. In other words if the two prisoners have some understanding of how each other thinks – and we are told they are already partners in crime – then the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is no dilemma at all. Melvyn Bragg seemed completely swept away by the panellists’ assertions that this was a theory of substance and utility, and failed to challenge them on these basic issues (although he did from time to time plead vainly for them to explain where mathematics came into it). It may well be a substantial and useful theory, but not on the evidence of this discussion.

  • Comment number 2.

    I have to disagree with the comment above. The panelist wasn't claiming that 'everyone litters' - he was explaining why there is never an overwhelming case for not littering, which in turn explains why it is always likely that some people will always litter. And the whole point of the prisoner's dilemma (as was clear from the discussion) is that the prisoners each try to second-guess what the other one will do, which is why they both end up doing the wrong thing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Having toiled for almost a week trying to start writing a history on Game Theory, In Our Time with Mr Melvyn Bragg and Guests came as 'Manna from Heaven'. There was a nice historical introduction to how the concept of Game Theory came about with a very good non-technical explanation to mixed strategies. However, the discussant could have mentioned that the probabilities players choose in mixed strategies is not a feature of single shot games, but repeated games. The notion of the Prisoners' Dilemma was well explained with minimum technicality. The limitations I noticed are: (1): the programme mentioned how players in the Battle of the Sexes game come to a solution, but did not mention the contribution of Thomas Schelling and his Focal Point that provides a practical solution to such games of coordination. (2): there was no mention of the development of sequential (dynamic games) and the contributions of Reinherd Selten. (3): the programme just 'touched' the Stag Hunt Game with minimal reference to Rousseau's Social Contract. (4): the programme did not provide a good insight on the Prisoners' Dilemma and how the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma in repeated games creates the scope for cooperation. SUGGESTION: Please do a future programme on the 'Evolution of Cooperation'- with emphasis on how the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma with Trigger Strategies creates the 'rational' scope for players in a game to cooperate. CONCLUSION: Thanks for the Game Theory programme-- Asrar Chowdhury, Bangladesh

  • Comment number 4.

    Mantuesday, I beg to differ: Richard Bradley said ‘the outcome will be that we all litter, and we see this all over the place’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b01h75xp at 15:50). Melvyn Bragg weakly protested that some places are relatively litter-free, but didn’t question the assumption that a lot of litter is proof that everyone is littering.

  • Comment number 5.

    Ian Stewart makes the observation in the scissor-paper-stone game we shouldn’t play any choice too often,because our opponent will pick up the pattern.We should do each option randommly and in no order.For certain types of ‘two-person’ game,the optimum strategy is an entirely random ingredient.You don’t lose as you adopt a maximising strategy.This is based upon equilibrium.Any deviation from this system of randomness would benefit the player who sticks to randomness.In seeing non-littering as a cooperative game,the outcome not to litter would benefit us all,however the speaker said that in the ‘real world’(what is that?)the outcome would be that everybody litters:that’s because we can promise everybody not to litter but cannot police it.We cannot expect everybody to respect the agreement if they don’t think its in their interests.The point is that this is not a game it’s a form of social agreement of benefit to society and the environment based on an underlying value.

    In the Prisonner’s Dilemma game that they each do what’s in their own best interests and yet if they do they end up worse off,whereas a rational strategy would be for them to cooperate with each other,not confess and be let off,or both to confess and have lighter sentences.This conflicts with Hume’s idea of instrumental rationality to pursue what’s in your own best interests.Cooperation here is deeply irrational and appears in nature too.
    Later they tackled the idea of dominant strategies(Nucleur arms race)or the idea of honour(is it better to gain a little even if you lose rather than gain nothing if it means keeping your honour).What was not mentioned was that in random generation of security codes,pseudo-randomness leads to code breaking.A very good edition.

  • Comment number 6.

    Could I make the suggestion of a programme on Archytas of Tarentum, a mathematician, statesman and philosopher. Most famous in mathematical terms for his ingenious solution to doubling the volume of a cube; a 3-dimensional construction involving the intersection of a cylinder, cone and tore.


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