July 10, 2006
Decision making in the absence of informationDid I ever tell you the story of Eunice "The Cutey"? It is a favorite story of mine. Years ago, when I started the PhD program at Columbia, I met a guy in my Program Languages and Translators class that I thought was totally awesome. He was wearing a Hoagie Haven T-shirt (I liked that place when I was in high school, so was shocked to see it randomly showing up in a class of mine in New York) so I thought it was my moral duty to talk to this guy. Our first conversation was about palindromes. He mentioned that he liked that. I mentioned that I had been trying to think of a good way to use golf and flog in a palindrome, and on the spot he came out with "Re-flog a golfer". I don't know how I could have missed that myself, but anyway, we became fast friends. His name is Carl Sable. In that class, at some point we had to do a project in groups of three. Carl and I had worked together before and worked really well together, but now we needed to pick up a third person. I suggested that, in the absence of any information about other people in the class (because we didn't know any else in it) then we should view everyone else as intellectually equal candidates (being the progressive that I think I am) and use some sort of exterior quality to make a decision about who to work with. As long as we're judging on purely superficial qualities (since we assume in the absence of any other evidence that everyone is intellectually equal) then why not choose to work with a cute girl, because if nothing else, she is at least cute. So I asked a girl named Eunice, who was really cute and will henceforth be named "The Cutey", if she would join our group. She did, and we got to work on the project. I'm going to cut this story short, but I'll just say that my progressive view that you shouldn't judge people's intellectual ability based on their exterior qualities just did not pan out well in this case. I mean, in general, just because a girl is blond, I don't think you should assume that she is an airhead. Over the course of our project, The Cutey did absolutely nothing to help us progress, and in fact set us back by probably a few days. When she didn't contribute to our planning sessions (either saying nothing when she showed up, or not showing up at all) we tried to minimize the work she would have to do. We gave her some sort of simple task to program, and she somehow managed to delete the entire codebase, losing us maybe two or three days work because we had to go back to some backup files that Carl had luckily kept. (Of course, that's Carl for you. You can count on him to be nothing if not consistent and detail-oriented. He consistently keeps backups. Although, also following one of Carl's traits, he didn't use CVS or RCS or any sort of technology-based solution. He just copied all the files to a folder, backups.2 or something. And there are backups.1, backups.3, ..., backups.n folders for some value of n.) So what is the point of this story? Sometimes I make decision based on utterly idiotic ideas, like choosing project members based on how cute they are. I'm sure we could have picked out some random asian male and ended up with a good partner[*]. Even if things don't work out in the end, you are left with an amusing story. Also, The Cutey was, true to her name, very cute for the entire length of the project.
[*] This is mostly a joke, because why should it be the case that some random asian male would be a good student? You really can't generalize like that and expect it to hold true all the time, which was the entire point of this experiment. Why should a cute girl be assumed to be a bad partner for a project? Still, I'm pretty sure that had we just asked one of the asian males in the class, we would have had an easier time of things, but not nearly as amusing of a story.
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