What go around come around, kid

I submitted a paper on Thursday. The submission was preceded by the usual weeks of pain. In addition to the standard statistical unlikelihood of my paper getting in to the top conference in my area, there’s also the added challenge of competing with twelve other papers submitted from Berkeley. So I basically have no chance. But at least it’s over with!

One scary moment was on Tuesday when I tripped over my laptop’s power cord and sent it (the laptop) crashing to the floor, while it was still on and open. That could have been a very ugly scene, but it survived with only a small blemish on the screen. Oh baby, I love my T40.

Since Thursday, I’ve been vegging out big-time. To make up for not having seen a movie in months, I saw three movies on Thursday and Friday; in chronological and quality order: Team America, Gigantic, The Incredibles. Team America‘s pacing was just too slow and the jokes were overused. Gigantic is a documentary about They Might Be Giants that I had picked up a while ago but never had the chance to watch. Of course, I’ve always been convinced of their subversive pop brilliance, but it was cool to see how many highbrow-types (like Ira Glass and David Eggers) loved them too. They’re also slowly and sneakily converting the mainstream, having written the theme music for Malcolm in the Middle, Austin Powers, and The Daily Show, among others. Yeah!

I remember one time when I was in college they came to play in the Quad. There was a big outdoor stage set up, and a large group of people had gathered to watch the show. We were waiting for the show to start, and when I was glancing around, I saw John Linnell (one of the two members of TMBG) standing in the crowd with everyone else, looking expectantly at the stage! Back then he was in his late thirties but still looked 23. No one had noticed him, and I (being the stupid fan I am) went up to him and asked him some foolish question. He seems to be a pretty shy guy, so I think he was a little disappointed that his cover was blown. Anyway, it was pretty cool that he could get away with it until then. Of course, shortly thereafter he snuck off to do the show.

The Incredibles was terrific. Aside from one huge cliche that the movie disappointingly uses instead of satirizes, the worst part is having to read all the idiotic reviews that say how “incredible” it is. Definitely go see it!

I had this thought about political snobbery the other day:

  1. Liberal snobs think that they know better than conservatives.
  2. Conservative snobs think that all liberals are liberal snobs.

It’s unfortunate, but it does lead to amusing rants like this one.

Did I ever mention my green shirt problem? I don’t remember. Basically, I have this problem: I like the color green slightly more than other colors. So you might expect that I have slightly more green clothes than clothes of other colors. Instead, I have far too many green shirts, since every time I go to buy something, the green option looks slightly better and I end up getting it. I only mention this because I recently got another green shirt. It’s kind of ridiculous. I obviously need to rely on a stochastic decision process instead of a deterministic one.

While I’m mentioning random stuff (haha), I’d like to promote the coin-flip method for figuring out what you want.

Say you have a decision to make between choice X and choice Y, and you just can’t figure out which one to pick. If you’re like me — bad at making decisions — this happens somewhat frequently, if you also have the sort of interesting life that requires making lots of decisions, which luckily — or unluckily — I don’t. Anyway.

Chances are, you do have a preference (say, Y), but you don’t consciously know it. You need some way to trick yourself into exposing your inner predilection. Here’s how to figure it out: take a coin and tell yourself that if you flip it and it lands heads then you’re going to pick X, and otherwise you’ll go Y. Ahhhh, so arbitrary, but then again you can’t decide on your own, right? Call your bluff: flip the coin. Here’s the kicker — when it lands, chances are that if it lands X, you’re going to feel unhappy. You’re going to try to make up an excuse to flip the coin again (“hmm, let me do best two of three instead…”) or something. That’s how you know you really want Y. If it lands Y, you’re going to feel relieved that random chance luckily sided with what you wanted anyway.

Okay, in reading over this description, it sounds like a totally preposterous idea — that flipping a coin could make up your mind — but it really works. Try it next time.

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12 Responses to What go around come around, kid

  1. adamch says:

    The coin-flip method

    Or you can cut out the middle man and go for the ideomotor effect. Hold a pendulum in your hand and tell yourself that clockwise motion means one thing and counterclockwise motion the other. If you’re moderately patient, your subconscious reaction will give you the answer.

    • aj says:

      Re: The coin-flip method

      Yeah, that’s a neat application. I’ve seen the pendulum trick used as follows: hold a pendulum, imagine that you’re moving it but don’t really. Voila, it starts to move. I guess it’s much more practical to actually have it tell you something you don’t already “know” :).

      Not sure how a coin is any more of a middle man than a pendulum is, though…

      • adamch says:

        Re: The coin-flip method

        I was referring to the step of gauging your emotional response instead of relying only on the pendulum swinging instincts that we inherit from our invertebrate ancestors.

        • aj says:

          Re: The coin-flip method

          Ah I see. It’s amusing that I’m considered a middle man in judging how I feel, but point taken :).

          However, I’m not sure if the middle man here doesn’t add some value. I don’t have a pendulum, so I’m making this up, but I imagine by the pendulum method, when it starts rotating one way, you’re like “okay, I guess that’s what I wanted”, whereas with the coin flip, you feel quite strongly about your decision — by actually having an external event “decide” for you, a stronger response is elicited, perhaps, than when you still feel like you’re deciding yourself. (And it avoids questions like “Did I mean for the pendulum to move that way, or did I just jerk my hand by accident?”, etc.)

          Clearly, though, both methods borrow from the same premise; to each his own :).

  2. awu says:

    Hey, human eyes see green better, so why not more green shirts :)

    I tried randomization for a while, but I’ve started using different tie-breaking techniques more recently, such as one-good-reason. Using your inner compass, as you point out, biases your decisions toward some dominant vector even if the actual strength of that predilection is not overly strong.

    One-good-reason just says that you only need to consider a single dimension when making your choices. That is, you can make a decision if you have at least one good reason.

    Sure, it may not be optimal in some decision theoretic sense, but you may be happier for it, but of course it’s possible that you become too good at being happy which makes you ultimately less happy so maybe we shouldn’t be optimizing happiness at all, and can just go back to buying green tees and coming up with fun generalizations.

    Wrt clothes in particular, you can add additional decision logic that asks if you already have a piece of clothing that is functionally similar in terms of fit and style, and not buy it unless that condition is met.

    (I don’t find it easy to do that, but maybe you’ll have better luck.)

    • aj says:


      You’re right about the clothes, of course, and I try to do that when I get something new. But somehow in that situation I’m blinded to obvious facts like “I already have three green shirts like this”. Basically, I’m stupid.

      • awu says:

        Re: Clothes


        I’ve done the same recently in building up a new wardrobe — trying to discard almost everything except that one blue tee — except I’m strangely into light summer blue these days.

        Maybe we need to carry around polaroids of our closets :)

  3. dianaca4 says:

    AJ — I totally use that fake-out by coin-flip method of decision making! And it works every time, haha.

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