A multi-armed bandit
Random Walk at Night: Focusing on focusing
Am I exploring or exploiting? How can one tell?
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Random Walk at Night
A multi-armed bandit
Tonight’s post will be relatively short.
Partly because this morning’s post was really long, and partly because of the revelation that follows:
Random Walk needs to focus more.
Or, more accurately, to quotequoting Sam Altman:
Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on.
I’ve never met Sam Altman, but I’d bet he’d say that about me.
To return to Karlsson for a moment, life is very much a multi-armed bandit problem, or at least that’s how I’ve approached it. You might even say that Random Walk is a multi-armed bandit company.
What is a multi-armed bandit problem?
Roughly speaking, it describes the tension between exploration and exploitation.
The classic example is a slot machine with multiple arms (and, as far as I know, no actual bandits).
Each arm has a different expected payout, but the only way to discover that hierarchy of payouts, is to variously pull the arms.
At first, cranking all those arms (“exploration”) is optimal in the sense of “unless you pull arms, you’re not going to figure out which are the right arms to pull.”
At a certain point, however, the optimal behavior is to pull the pay-out arms only (“exploitation”);
And, if you hit the exploitation phase, but keep just tugging on arms, you are an idiot, even if that same behavior was totally appropriate only a little while earlier.
It’s, of course, never so simple.
As Karlsson summarizes:
The gambler needs to learn new knowledge about the machines and simultaneously use what they have already learned to optimize their decisions. In the literature, these two activities are referred to as exploring and exploiting. You can’t do both things at the same time. When you explore, you are pulling new arms on the bandit trying to figure out their expected payout. When you exploit, you pull the best arm you’ve found.
When it comes to a slot machine, it’s relatively easy to measure success.
Life, is however, more complicated:
You need to find the right balance. If you spend too little time exploring, you get stuck playing a machine with a low expected payoff. But if you spend too much time exploring, you will earn less than you would if you played the best arm. This is the explore/exploit trade-off.
Karlsson then goes on to describe how exploration and/or exploitation comes variously easy for different people. To balance the tradeoff, requires some combination of “know thyself”—which part comes more easily to you—and some specific tactics, that at least worked for Karlsson.
The whole essay is good and thoughtful and you should read it.
Focus on focusing
Back to Random Walk. And focus.
Here’s the gist of it:
I have been writing so much, that I don’t have any time to think about Random Walk.1
Am I exploring? Exploiting? No idea. Can’t think. Must write.
That’s no bueno.
I have big plans for Random Walk, but that requires, y’know, actually planning.2
So, for now, I need to write a little less, and focus a little more (and execute on some of the non-writing elements of this endeavor). I hope that’s ok.
I assure you, I will still be writing a lot, but perhaps not quite as frequently as before, at least for a time.
A final note - a request for feedback
One extremely helpful thing would be to hear from you, the reader, my best beloved.
Don’t be shy. Just respond to this email.
Tell me what you like, what you don’t like, what there could be more of or less of. Daily cadence? Weekly cadence? Long form? Short form? Be honest. I promise you won’t hurt my feelings.
👉👉 One initiative that I am very focused on is an in-person event, that is somewhere between salon, seminar and retreat.
As I focus more on figuring out what to focus on, expect some other trial balloons, as well.
Onwards and upwards.
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I’m yanking arms right and left because there are so many arms to yank (and tbh, they all have payouts of sorts). And the issue isn’t even that I’m stuck in exploration mode, so much as that I couldn’t even tell you if I’m exploring or exploiting because I’m already head-down yanking the next arm before the cherries or whatever finish their pretty little line-up. In fairness, it turns out that being staff writer, research department, editor, admin, and CEO of 7x/week publication takes an awful lot of time and effort.
The multi-armed bandit problem is a particularly salient tension for Random Walk because Random Walk is rather purposefully not about any one thing. Serendipity is part of the point, but that’s (by definition) a hard thing to plan.
The irony is that one of the biggest bottlenecks on writing that I have is choosing among all the various different things I’d like to write about, which is a rather difficult decision to make without some framework for determining what goes where. Again, it comes back to a surfeit of focus and planning.