Dating [Calculus]

People often do calculus in their heads, projecting from a point, sometimes with or without the line.

The simplest example I can think of comes not from a date, but from a college bake sale. A bunch of students volunteered to bring in baked goods, but one student’s big plans flopped and the cake was kind of… crusty. The committee leader immediately projected a line: “Kim can’t bake.” And for all the future, as far as the committee leader was concerned, Kim was useless for all things baking.

On a more common, interpersonal level, one commonly hears complaints that starts “You always…” and end with something like “leave your dishes in the sink” or “take my stuff without asking.” Often, a proper examination of the facts reveals only two datapoints for the accusation. Good enough for P&G, but not for my high school math teacher.

Snap judgments are a necessary cognitive shortcut. We can’t always wait to collect three data points on a person before coming to any conclusions about them. Instead, we have to recognize behaviors, make connections, and come to conclusions.

In short, when a person does something (guy comes late for a job interview), that’s a datapoint. We then find the generalized equation for that  behavior based on our experience or mass wisdom (people who come late to job interviews) and take the derivative from that point (if he can’t come on time for an important interview, when will he come on time?).  It happens at job interviews, it happens at chance meetings, and it happens on shidduch dates.

It’s always easiest to become indignant when you’re on the receiving end. (“Okay so I arrived late! There was a tractor-trailer jackknifed across three lanes!”) I took it rather hard when a date informed our shadchan that I was “anti-bais Yaakov.” All I’d done was tell him a rather traumatic story from 12thgrade to illustrate what I thought was a weakness in the system.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t criticize the senate,” I complained. “He would have thought I was an anarchist.” And heaven knows what he might have thought if I’d told a good Israeli taxi-driver story. Probably that I’m full of sinas chinam.

But, bitterness aside, I can see how he reached that conclusion. It’s just calculus.

Point: Bad4 says something critical about a bais Yaakov high school.

Line: The last person who told me something like that was virulently anti-orthodox, off-the-derech, etc.

Derivative: Bad4 is covertly anti-establishment.

But I’m not one to criticize. I do it too. I’ll come home after a date with a vaguely negative impression. When I try to pin down where it comes from, I’ll have a hard time. What it boils down to is:

Point: Guy shows up without a plan for the date.

Line: Many of my dates who did this exhibited lack of drive or maturity.

Derivative: I’m dating yet another “boy.”

Ah, but didn’t this guy mention successfully launching a startup? That doesn’t sound so clueless. People aren’t mass-produced plastic figurines. You can’t assume that because this one appears to be a little green soldier, he’s got his feet glued to a plastic oval.

Which is why I’ve got a dating motto: When in doubt, go out (again). Because derivatives are for finding the instantaneous rate of change, not for making predictions. And whatever P&G might think, two points don’t make a line. Especially when you’re dealing with people—imperfect but self-correcting wonderful and awful human beings.

[Dating] Calculus

When I was in high school, my math teacher warned against the foolishness of projecting a line from only two points. Two points, she explained, could easily lie on a curve. But you’d never know unless you had at least a third point plotted.

When I got older, I applied to Procter & Gamble for an internship. To determine whether you’re smart enough to work for them, they give you a reasoning test with questions like this (only harder):

It flummoxed me the first time I saw them and I flunked. But I went back and studied the questions and I realized they were testing only one skill: the ability to predict a complex pattern based on only two datapoints. And, like most mass-produced standardized tests, there’s a limit to how many permutations can arise, so it was easy to study for. I passed the second time.

So now I can say that I’m smart because I can project a line from only two points.

It might seem to follow that it would be even smarter to project a line from a single point. Indeed, this is (sort of) what is known as calculus.

When you take the derivative of an equation at a given point, you are essentially saying, “If the line proceeded straight from this point, it would have this slope.” In this example, the two derivatives taken are lines with slopes that continue forever downward.

But the function doesn’t really behave that way. It bends. At zero, the derivative suggests a flat line.

That isn’t how it happens either. You probably recognize the function as y=x^2, and it’s parabolic.

It isn’t exactly projecting a line from a single point, because the point itself must be on a line. But it’s as close as you can reasonably get.

Derivatives are very handy tools when you want to know the behavior of a system at an exact point. But projecting those lines and assuming they hold in the future is clearly unsafe. It is also the stuff of Malthusian doomsayers.

Malthus was the 18th century philosopher who took a look at population growth and found that it looked something like this:

Then he examined food production capacity, and discovered that it plotted something like this:

And of course he freaked out. Because it seemed patently clear that the world was going to starve in just a few generations.

Of course Malthus was wrong. He didn’t take into account that family size reduces with prosperity and that scientific farming would spur huge leaps in agricultural output. But that has not stopped other doom-and-gloom prophets of the past from foreseeing us all dying of famine, drought, resistant bacteria, superviruses, and various energy-related disasters by the year 2000.

It is also the sort of mental math used by social doomsayers who gloomily predict that at current rates of moral degeneration we will be bonobos in a mere generation or two. They look at the trend from the Victorian era, project a line from the most recent point, and get something steeply negative. Clearly these people are unfamiliar with the Restoration period in England. Or almost any other non-Victorian era in world history. We’re relatively chaste and exceptionally ethical by comparison. Morality, I would posit, is more of a sine curve.

And this is because people are not (gasp) equations. We have the ability to self-correct based on feedback from our environment. (Including, for example, doom-and-gloom predictions.)

And I was going to connect this to dating, but I’m at my word limit, so to be continued.

What Most of My ‘Suggestions’ Sound Like

Don’t you love the way people always have the perfect guy for you… and don’t know a thing about him? I sometimes feel like certain people just automatically think “smart, offbeat – hey, let’s set him up with Bad4!” That might be enough for them, but it’s not really enough for me.

Person: I have a guy for you, Bad4.

Me: So tell me about him.

P: Well, he’s really smart.

Me: Really. How?

Now, I ask this because experience has taught me that “really smart” can be roughly translated as “ability to talk about things I don’t understand.” The exact smartness level indicated is then a relative variable dependent upon the knowledge base of the speaker. For the average special ed teacher, for example, “smart” can mean “he took Intro to Physics and won’t let anybody forget it.”

P: At the bar mitzvah where he met my brother, he was talking about how the band could save money by turning the vibrations from their music into electricity.

M: Hm.

I say “Hm” because I’m not exactly impressed yet. What kind of obsessive geek subjects a captive audience to his hair-brained electricity-saving scheme? And if he were really smart, he would have spent the bar mitzvah sketching the final blueprint on a napkin and avoiding red wine so his shirt would still be white for his meeting with the venture capitalists the next day.

The truth is, I’m sorry to say, too many people with science and math degrees are just big-mouthed show-offs. I’ve heard solid C-students brag about impressing girls at the bar by telling them that their glass of beer is really just a triple integral. If these girls had taken the multivariable calculus course they’d know that this brilliant line about beer glasses is the most basic piece of information you can come out with – liking “cells are the building blocks of life” from bio class.  But they haven’t, so they think these guys are uber-clever.

P: (sees I’m unimpressed) He’s getting a PhD at Cooper Union.

Me: Hm!

On the one hand, “Cooper Union” is a pretty decent indication of smartness. On the other…

Me: Cooper doesn’t have a PhD program.

P: Well, he’s doing something advanced in anthropology there.

Uh oh.

Me: They don’t have an anthropology department.

P: Well, it’s something like that. I’ll find out for you. So do you want to go out with him?

Me: Um… Well… you haven’t really told me anything about him.

P: Well, what else would you want to know?

Me: Is he a mentch? Does he learn? What does he want to be when he grows up? Where’s he from?

P: Oh, I’m not sure. But that’s research stuff – you can find out after he’s looked into you.

Me: Then what exactly are you asking me here? Would I be willing to consider a guy who is smart and who may or may not be pursuing an advanced degree possibly in anthropology or else in Cooper Union? Yes. I’d also consider a guy of average intelligence pursuing a degree in advanced vocal arts at the Julliard School. That’s not make-it-or-break-it information.

P: Okay. I’ll get back to you then.

P is never heard from again. Possibly it’s because I’m being a difficult, unreasonable single. Or maybe she couldn’t find him again.