Three Standard Deviations


Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No — not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

— Piet Hein

(By the way, apparently spinning a penny is a terrible randomization process; studies have shown they come up tails 80% of the time. Tossing or flipping is better but there’s still a faintly biased 51% chance it lands with the same face it started with (PDF link). Entirely irrelevantly, is the meter amphibrachic? Nice. I’m sorry, but the impenetrable English names they give to metrical feet just sound so cool.)

As May 1 has been coming up, I’ve been half-seriously giving this advice to others who still haven’t decided. But I knew this wouldn’t work for me. I knew where I intuitively wanted to go all along.

The reasons holding me back were more… reasonable. Mostly the money. Call it an id-superego conflict.

I don’t know if the difference between my choices would mean I’d have to take out loans, or work a lot during college, or both. I don’t think either of those things would be difficult. I think tech internships over the summer could just cover the parts assigned to parental contribution (which I’m not going to let my parents pay, unless they start earning a lot more money than expected) and I think I have the skills to get those internships. But of course that’s a tradeoff. Maybe there will be something more self-actualizing or more helpful to my future career that I could do during the summer. I’m not so sure that I’ll find the same drive to program for a job instead of for a personal project I really want to use myself, or for putting off something more boring. I don’t know yet.

(Get it? Drive? Program? Um, never mind, I guess that’s a hardware problem.)

Plus, I’m a very thrifty person. Honestly if I got an extra $10,000 tomorrow, I don’t know what I would spend most of it on. I don’t eat out much; I don’t aspire to a big house; I don’t care much for TV shows or movies. It’s not so often I get an opportunity to spend money towards my most viscerally held interests. And I also know a friend is braving much greater financial risk.

But then I think about the thoughts in my old post about the money; the scholarship difference really turned out to be in the range in which I thought I would be the most indecisive. Remember the dead child unit? That makes the difference out to be about 20 dead children?

…No, wait, I followed the GiveWell link and they no longer rate Population Services International as highly as they did before, or all the low-hanging fruit has been picked or something. Now going by their analysis of their current top charity, Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), the cost per life saved is $3,340. So we’re only talking about 4 or 5 dead children here. I feel relieved. But kind of horrified at myself for feeling relieved. But in a utopia where nobody dies of undesired, preventable causes, the cost of saving an additional life would be infinity, so in that sense a higher price is good, perhaps?

But on the other hand, the colleges really aren’t identical. Maybe going to this college I like will make me so much happier and more productive that I add more than 15K of value to the world than I would have otherwise. Maybe, just by thinking about this and being aware the way I am right now, I’ll become that much more conscientious about earning money and donating in the future.

No, this is a cop-out. These “maybe”s I just offered are rationalizations. I can’t claim in full faith that this decision is worth the good that 15K might do elsewhere. But it’s better to be aware than not, right? Not to mention all this time there’s this meta-utilitarian voice yelling at me that maybe it’s more utility-maximizing in the long run to adopt a deontological shortcut to save the utility from agonizing over these decisions.

I do think it’s much more likely that I’d regret not following my heart than following my economic rationality. “The only things in life you regret are the risks you didn’t take”, right? But neither event seems very likely since (I heard) most people end up adapting to and loving the college they choose, whether or not it was their first choice by personal reasons. But I’m not most people (and I know one counterexample (albeit relayed through a highly biased source))…

I go back and look at all the factors, large and small, that shifted me… the friends, the dorm cultures, the unified math department, probably better CS (but one counter-data-point: Elm, the “functional reactive language for interactive applications” that seems to me the most well-developed language of its type (harhar) right now), the epsilons like the mystery hunt and hacks. But then I subtract the downsides, the lingering doubts I have about the weather and mental health issues. Can I handle the cold and dark? Well, as I already said, I’m an indoors person. And since the biggest alternative is right next to it I guess that’s not much to deliberate over. I still don’t really know how I will be affected by the atmosphere of mental issues. For a while in seventh grade I was really miserable, but I think I’ve been in pretty good psychological shape ever since. But then it’s going to be coupled with the weather and seasonal affective disorder is a thing.

Maybe I should have visited the campuses after all. My assumption in the end was that the community would help me more than the weather would hurt, and an informal survey of people suggested it wasn’t that much of a problem and that visiting was more fun than informative about which college to choose. What also happened was I had the last school event I’d get to spend with my friends around the time. And I would save money. The price of roundtrip airplane tickets pales next to the scholarship differences, but it isn’t negligible.

Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. I did the research but there are still too many things I don’t know about myself. It feels sort of unfair I have to make this decision based on these fuzzy emotions and considerations. Nobody ever taught me how to do this.

Sometimes — more than once — I imagine a parallel universe where I only got accepted to one of the colleges I applied to. Closer to the way I was when I wrote the last post. And I can’t help but think that that me would be happier and more confident because he wouldn’t be second-guessing himself, instead devoting all his effort into just living senior year the best he could and preparing for his known future.

This bothers me. Ideal utility-maximizers can’t be worse off if you offer them more choices, not to mention how many people would love to get the choice I had to make. But yes, I recall there are studies that show that humans are less satisfied when they are faced with too many choices. I’m thinking about the “jam experiment”, Iyengar-Lepper 2000 (PDF). But then apparently the experiment didn’t replicate (The Atlantic quotes Financial Times as saying?). So it’s complicated.

This is wandering far off topic, I know. I think it’s my defense mechanism when I write about this sort of thing.

I try to imagine the bigger context from a different perspective. The plot point where I decide to “follow my heart” is more likely to be the turning point of a sentimental movie, with the main character turning his head in slow-mo intermingled with 50%-desaturated flashbacks and a crooning voice backed by gentle guitar strumming in the background. On the other hand, the part where I possibly “go 15K by 15K into debt” is more likely to be in the introduction on a profile of a tragic hero figure on Wired or Vox or Slate, paving the way to segue into a broader point about systemic issues in society and the financial aspects thereof or something.

I don’t live in a sentimental movie. I try to imagine how the tragic profile would continue: a quick narrative cut to the present, with the interviewee shaking his head lamenting how naive he was back then. Or shaking his head and saying that, although he would regret it at first when he finally had to deal with the bills after the exhausting schoolwork, it would turn out to be the second-best decision of his life three standard deviations above the mean in terms of how good it was. Or shaking his head and laughing, “I wrote a bunch of thousand-word blog posts back then about the choice, but it turned out to not really matter at all. Can you remember when blog posts were still a thing in the early twenty-first century? Probably not. Technology moves so fast these days.”

Nope, not helpful. I still don’t know. I looked at the list of positive experiences I had with the Facebook group and I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed any open-source parties in the other groups, so I looked around and found an npm package that could download the posts and comments from the Facebook groups and output them in a reasonably greppackable JSON format. This revealed 19 hits for searching for “github” case-insensitively, one hit for “sourceforge”, one hit for “” and also 5 hits for “haskell” — these are all substrings that appear exactly zero times in the other groups. (Nothing for “bitbucket” anywhere. But I’m confirmation-biased, so to be fair, Harvard still has slightly more hits for “math”, after you filter out the person whose name contains “math” as a substring. It also wins in usage of “love” (but also of “hate”) and “writing”. Stanford wins “puzzle”, “program”, “music”, “research”, and “lisp”. There are some inconclusive words for which different groups win, depending on how I inflect it or whether I add word boundaries — “sing”, “logic”, “engineer”, “dragon”…)

But when I thought about the fact that I was feeding random words into a two-minute shell script connecting node.js and Perl utilities in order to make an informed decision, I knew even more strongly where I belonged.

I can come up with no end of extra considerations and potential objections; maybe there are still a thousand what-ifs that will come to me in the following days. I may come to understand the choice in broader terms and love or hate myself for it. Maybe it’ll seem obvious in hindsight, and maybe the obvious choice will be the one I chose, and maybe it won’t. But I realized no matter what I chose I would always be wondering, and in any case I’ll probably never know what the alternatives are like and there is no way to go but forward. None of this does anything to change the fact that, right now, right here, this decision was three standard deviations harder than the mean, or that I weighed everything as best as I could and have already decided.

Follow my heart it is.

Relative to what, Atlas Shrugged?
Relative to what, Atlas Shrugged?

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