Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

Tales from a San Francisco housing search (DELETED SCENES)

26 Oct 2014

These are 3 bits that didn’t make it into the main body of Tales from a San Francisco housing search, but that I was too vain and insufficiently ruthless to just throw away. They are provided as-is and with no warranty.


Whenever I move to a new city, I usually spend a few weeks feeling like every interaction that doesn’t end in me receiving some kind of trophy or certificate is a nuclear disaster. A lot of other people seem to go through something similar, and to my mind there are a few explanations that don’t require a detailed examination of anyone’s specific neuroses.

Most prosaically, we tend to feel worse about failures than we do good about equivalent successes. Losing $100 is much worse than winning $100 is good, and exchanging firm handshakes and vague suggestions that we-should-do-this-again-sometime doesn’t make up for repeatedly forgetting to bring your personality out with you.

When in a new place, you have fewer bedrocks like your bestest best friends to give you free dopamine. There are fewer people who will laugh automatically at all your jokes regardless of quality, and fewer people who are morally obliged to feign interest in the amazing sandwich you made this morning. So even if your rate of social disasters stays constant, your rate of wins is inevitably going to take at least a temporary hit.

Positive, substantial relationships take a long time to materialise. If someone has no interest in being anywhere near you then this will tend to become obvious fairly quickly, but the winding, tentative path towards rainbows and lifelong friendship is far longer and less easy to account for in the short term. Your strongest and most rewarding relationships are almost always based around hours and days and years of shared experiences and lexicons, and it turns out that these take hours and days and years to create.

Finally, it’s exceptionally easy to over-interpret other people’s completely neutral and uncalculated actions as proof that you will be spending the rest of your life with only microwave pizza for company. People probably like or at least tolerate you a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Even when they don’t it’s rarely a deliberate rejection of your fundamental being, and there’s very rarely any reason for you to actually care. Unfortunately, when doing the Craigslist thing, your fundamental being actually is constantly getting deliberately rejected, and there is a rather large reason for you to care. So you just have to take it on the chin and blame it on the highly competitive San Francisco property market.

Kepler’s Marriage Problem

Johannes Kepler needed to decide who to marry. Being a 17th century mathematician and astronomer, he did not have a Tinder account, but he did have a finite queue of N women and a formal process for choosing between them. Johannes was to meet the first woman in line, and decide there and then whether to marry her. If he said yes, game over. If not then she would leave for ever, and the choice repeated with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th women, all to the way up to the Nth, who he would then be obliged to marry if he got that far.

Johannes’s problem was how to maximise his chance of choosing the Hottest Possible Wife. After doing some maths, he proved that he should meet the first 36.8% (1/e) of women, reject them all out of hand, and then propose to the first woman in the remaining 63.2% who was hotter than the hottest of the first batch. Elegantly this would give him a 36.8% (1/e) chance of bagging the optimum babe.

This solution doesn’t apply directly to Heaton’s Craigslist Problem, but it does give some food for thought. An important difference between KMP and HCP is that in KMP, we assume that Kepler has no idea of the makeup of the sample of women. Much of the battle is therefore spent trying to gauge the distribution from which the sample is selected, so that he doesn’t settle for someone terrible or mistakenly hold out for a unicorn who doesn’t exist. But Heaton already has a pretty good idea of what the set of humans he could live with looks like. He can say with reasonable confidence that “these people are total chumps” or “these people are substantially better than your average people and I would definitely enjoy living with them.” Thus whilst a small amount of effort and resource should still be spent on calibration, it is much less than Kepler’s 36.8%. In addition, Heaton isn’t critically concerned about making sure he chooses the absolute best of the best of the best, and has little desire to traipse round every single available room in San Francisco before making a decision. He should jump at anyone he feels actively good about and feel happy about it.

The worst parts of a date and a job interview

Viewing an apartment in a super competitive rental market neatly fuses the worst parts of a date and a job interview to create a curious dynamic much less pleasant than either.

In a job interview, you are primarily being evaluated by an interviewer against a (theoretically) known set of skills or potentials, and only secondarily on your overall qualities as a human being. Someone can reject you for a job without it being a damning indictment of your overall character.

A date is more like a 2-way interview between equal participants. Similarly, someone can decide that they aren’t tremendously interested in having sex with you whilst still liking and appreciating you as a human being.

But an apartment viewing is a straight up decision on whether or not someone likes you. You’re not trying to show that you know a lot about designing cars or would make a great security guard, and you’re not trying to sub-consciously suggest that your genitals are of desirable dimensions. You’re just trying to show that you are a cool person. This can feel a little tense at times if you overthink about it.

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