Quick Hit

Tonight’s note will be a short one.

Someone sent me a cartoon that shows two people tunneling (separately) with pickaxes. One is furiously hacking away, and he is a few short steps from breaking through into a sort of cavern filled with gold. (I am writing this from memory. It might be cash, or Klondike Bars, or something.) The other has just given up and has turned around, unaware that he is mere inches from reaching the same cavern. The caption was along the lines of, “Don’t give up — you never know how close you are to the goal.”

And it occurred to me that sometimes that’s true. But sometimes, you’re still miles and miles and miles from the goal, but you don’t know it, and you might think you’re mere inches away. In a situation like that… wouldn’t giving up actually be the smart thing to do? Is the effort really worth the pain?

I know that the point is that it could happen at any time (whatever “it” is that you’re working toward). But that’s also the same sucker logic that keeps people playing the lottery, which is just a voluntary tax on people who are bad at math.

The real trouble is not just that we don’t know how close we may be to the goal… but that we don’t even have a concept of the potential scale of distance.

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One Response to Quick Hit

  1. Lummox JR says:

    I’m sure this phenomenon has a name in formal game theory. If the reward is more or less fixed and the cost is dependent on time, the only way to gauge whether it’s worth the dig is to try to figure out the break-even point. But this is fuzzier in the real world, because we can’t pin down the value of “it” nor even guarantee that any amount of hacking away will bring us closer to the goal.

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