Optimizing Looks Weird

by radimentary

[Calling it for this November, happy to have gotten a few short posts out.]

For a couple years in my childhood, my mom picked up an obsession that can only be described as extreme couponing. At the time, CVS and Rite Aid offered an enormous variety of discounts and rebates with strange, time-limited conditions and a glaring loophole: most of them stacked upon each other. If you rolled into the store on the date of the correct sale with a hundred dollars worth of coupons and rewards dollars, you could buy out their inventory of certain products without spending a cent, and end up with more ExtraBucks than you’d started with. And so it came to pass that at regular intervals, I’d be called out to the parking lot to help my mom haul in a twenty-year supply of Oral-B toothbrushes or a trunkful of sour cream and onion potato chips. At dinnertime, we’d inevitably be regaled with the story of yet another indignant cashier who called a manager after my mom pulled out her folder of coupons, only to be forced by said manager to apologize to the customer.

Genuinely optimizing looks weird and transgressive.

In StarCraft, there is a trick that every beginner Zerg player learns called the “extractor trick.” The game imposes a cap on the number of soldiers you can build, which is a very severe constraint. The extractor trick lets you surpass this cap by (roughly speaking) manually killing your own soldiers, building new ones, and then resurrecting the dead.

Feynman was famous for – among other things – his method of learning by teaching. I think what he noticed is that much of our collective brainpower is locked inside social cognition, and his method is a way of coopting this inaccessible processing power to learn math and physics. Nowadays, Feynman’s method is common practice: in graduate reading seminars everyone signs up to give a lecture on a topic they know nothing about; in many math classes, the professor learns as they go and stays one week ahead of the class.

Noticing the loopholes in the rules requires curiosity and confidence in ones own faculties, but that’s only half the battle. Many people notice loopholes and exploit them a tiny bit, like walking out of the convenience store with a free bag of chips. The rest of the battle is how you turn this exploit into a method, a career, or a business: it requires the courage to go all in to exploit these loopholes as far as they’ll go.