Changing your mind, takers, conformity, pirates and gold, concentration

“I Changed My Mind” award
I feel like, in online arguments, the thing I most admire is when people change their mind in the face of better evidence. And yet, sometimes that’s seen as evidence that you were wrong, and therefore you “lost.” F that. You should get an award for changing your mind.
See also: when you’re meditating, and you realize your mind was wandering, you don’t say “stupid mind! you’re so bad! I am bad!” you say “hey, I found my mind again! awesome, welcome back!”

F’ing Takers
A bit of Magic slang, maybe, or that’s where I got it at least: “taker.” Someone who rules-lawyers or otherwise does whatever they can to get ahead, at the expense of being nice or the game being fun. Like, what they’re doing is legal, but it sucks.

Why I bring it up (tl;dr: small-time landlord woes, you can skip this section, basically the landlord’s a Taker): when we rented our apartment, we were offered it for $3150/month including garage, or $3000 without. We said, ok, we’ll take the garage, it’s good for storage and bikes. I think the renting agent (call him E) said “sure, that’s fine.” (it might have been our agent. I think it was E.) The landlord, A, has been a shadowy figure to whom our money goes. A month after we moved in, they hired a property manager, K, so A doesn’t have to deal with us anymore. K basically parrots whatever A says. They had to do some seismic retrofitting in the garages, A noticed that some people were storing things and not cars in the garages, A gets worried, A tells K to tell us that no “storage” is allowed in the garages. We say, wtf, we rented it with a garage for storage! K says “well, let’s check your lease”, and sure enough, it says “no storage.” And like, I know, get everything in writing, I goofed, I tried to check every other dang thing, but I guess I missed this one. So we say “Ok, K, we’ll give the garage back. It’s now worth $275/month on the open market in our neighborhood, so how about you give us $200/month off our rent? That gives you a nice little profit margin to re-rent it.” A counters with “you can have $50/month off” and won’t budge. Even to $150, the original price of the garage.

Letter of the law, A is right! She got us good! We’re really not entitled to anything here, because by the rules of the game we mistakenly agreed to something dumb. But come on, can we be reasonably nice here? I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes here: you want your landlord to “play nice”? That’s like asking a rules-lawyer to ask you to take back that mistake you just made a half second ago. Of course you’re not entitled to it.

Or, to put it another way: we work in different modes. When you’re programming a computer, everything is letter-of-the-law. But when you’re paying for your food at a restaurant, there’s people involved, so you switch to a slightly different register in order to recognize the humanity of everyone there. (I mean, you tip, at least.) Life is better when you’re not going to court over every last minor gripe. And that only requires everyone to be just a little bit not-a-Taker.

Scarcity Breeds Conformity
One response to our landlord being a Taker is to say, bye, we’re renting from someone else. Sadly, we’re in a scarce market. (I could go on about how SF housing policy is terrible, but that’s another conversation.) So we’re encouraged to just suck it up. Now, one thing I liked using the garage for was building bikes. I was learning a skill, having fun, doing something productive and creative. Now I can’t use the garage for that. I guess I better just go to work and come home and drink beer and watch Netflix. (but not too loud.) Those are all within the rules. This is one argument for owning, and therefore for moving back to Pittsburgh. Hell, I think we’re not even supposed to be hanging pictures on the walls. Ugh.

Chasing the “Pirates and Gold” High
When I was still deciding where to go to college, my friend Bill who was doing computer science at CMU sent me one of his homework assignments, from 15-251, “Great Theoretical Ideas in Computer Science.” In it was the following problem:
“There’s a pirate ship with 100 pirates, all ranked in fierceness from 1 to 100. Whenever they find gold, they distribute it like so: Pirate #1 proposes a distribution. (like, “10 gold pieces to everyone” or “I get all of it, you all get nothing”, or whatever.) All the pirates vote yes or no. If at least half of the pirates vote yes, then they distribute the gold like that. But if more than half the pirates vote no, then they kill Pirate #1 and Pirate #2 gets to propose a distribution, and so on. The pirate just found a treasure chest with 1000 gold pieces, and you are Pirate #1. What distribution do you propose?”
You might think the answer is something like “10 gold to everyone”, or “20 gold to the first 50 pirates, 0 gold to the last 50 pirates”, or something, but there’s actually a very clever solution that lets you, Pirate #1, keep about 95% of the gold. No spoilers (but if you’re interested, I’ll explain it).

This was awesome. And I thought, wait, you can do this for a job? That plus the little programming glee when something works made me think, yep, this is what I want to do.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get back to that high :-/ Software engineering is more quotidian. Usually you don’t get too many “pirates and gold” problems. Think of it like building houses: Frank Lloyd Wright gets to build crazy houses over waterfalls and stuff, but most architects probably spend most of their days drawing up the same blueprints for the next McMansion. (Not to knock architects; I bet most of you would love to do Fallingwater but keep getting paid for dumb stuff. Apologies if that’s not true.) Plus, most architects don’t often, or ever, get the little hit of joy from screwing boards together.

Now, you can certainly go another direction, and go for Real World Impact instead of the fun programming puzzles. I think that’ll serve you much better in the long run, and it’s what I’m trying to do now, and what I’ve been trying to do for the last 5 years. I just wish someone had told me that ahead of time.

Imperceptibly Small Benefits
An idea I’m puzzling over involves social media, little hits of dopamine, and concentration. On one hand, concentratiophiles will tell you that each bit of social media you read will entrench this pattern of quick hits and no deep concentration. On the other hand, you learn stuff from all these little distractions? I could walk to the store, or I could walk to the store while listening to a podcast and pick up a lot of information about some topic I don’t know about. (Or just listen to a funny thing and have fun.)

Both sides are adding up small benefits. I guess some anti-social-media person can probably concentrate way better than I can, and they might argue it’s because of tiny practice times a million. Some super-social-media person, too, probably has a ton of friends, deep connections, and lots of knowledge about what’s up in the world, because of tiny knowledge times a million.

Wish we could measure either of these claims so we’d have some kind of idea about the veracity and the size of both of them :-/


Adam Jaffe -

I empathize with the bit about software engineering, as it also applies to basically all careers in the arts.

An “acting career,” for example, is mostly auditioning for commercials and very, very poorly-written material for film and theater. Do people really find that fulfilling?

I’m not sure about the right answer, but I think it’s something like “find well-paying, flexible work and use the money/extra time for the projects you really care about.”

Dan -

yeah, sounds pretty fair. I guess I’ve stopped trying to get that low-level buzz and trying for more abstract high-level things. Plus finding well-paying flexible work and using the money/time for projects.

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