Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Decision algorithm from John Barth’s The End of the Road

with 2 comments

Quite a few years ago I read John Barth’s novel The End of the Road, whose protagonist was discovered in the Baltimore train station by the Doctor, immobilized—cataleptic, really—from being unable to decide on a destination.

The Doctor adopts him as a patient, and when they eventually part, gives him some final bits of advice:

At the end of my last session — it had been decided that I was to return to Baltimore experimentally, to see whether and how soon my immobility might recur — the Doctor gave me some parting instructions.

“It would not be well in your particular case to believe in God,” he said, “Religion will only make you despondent. But until we work out something for you it will be useful to subscribe to some philosophy. Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. Study the World Almanac: it is to be your breviary for a while. Take a day job, preferably factory work, but not so simple that you are able to think coherently while working. Something involving sequential operations would be nice. Go out in the evenings; play cards with people. I don’t recommend buying a television set just yet. If you read anything outside the Almanac, read nothing but plays — no novels or non-fiction. Exercise frequently. Take long walks, but always to a previously determined destination, and when you get there, walk right home again, briskly. And move out of your present quarters; the association is unhealthy for you. Don’t get married or have love affairs yet: if you aren’t courageous enough to hire prostitutes, then take up masturbation temporarily. Above all, act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority — there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful. Good-by.”

I continue to use those three rules when I can’t decide between two alternatives. Words to live by.

Update: I should note that this passage is early in the book, and the novel is about what happens afterwards.

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2015 at 11:25 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting, however, it sounds like a crap shoot to me.



    31 August 2015 at 3:27 pm

  2. To some extent, but note that if you can easily choose which alternative you want, you don’t have to use this method; for most of us, it is useful only in situations in which we are having difficulty in choosing between alternatives because they are equally appealing (cf. Buridan’s ass). In that case, having an algorithm like the one described is much like flipping a coin or, as you say, rolling a die.

    The situation in the novel is that the protagonist finds any choice difficult/impossible to make. He becomes paralyzed when faced with having to choose, so for him an algorithm like the one described is useful. I am sure that the Doctor would not prescribe it to anyone who was not in such an extreme state.



    31 August 2015 at 3:39 pm

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