The Bugsy Way

In the above video, Mario races to the door using three different approaches:

  • The left-most Mario waits until he calculates an optimal path.
  • The right-most Mario sets off when he finds any viable path.
  • The center Mario balances the need to plan against the desire to start moving.

Watching these algorithms compete side-by-side, the middle way obviously wins. But in daily life, we don’t always see the best approach so clearly—especially when we’re confronted with new or uncomfortable situations.

I recently struggled to fix a wet dirt road here in Ecuador. I launched into a flurry of activity instead of patiently waiting for the sun to do its magic. Like the third Mario, my bias toward action in this situation proved counter-productive.

Unconscious fear usually drives my inefficient behaviors. For example, my notes during college wasted a lot of paper. I’d scribble a bunch during the first couple weeks of the semester, later tossing all of it without a second glance.

Why did this happen, in almost every class?

After the lecturer became a friendly face and I anchored in the text, the anxiety of being left behind subsided. I gained confidence in my understanding of the material. My illegible scrawling was never designed to aid studying in the first place, so I discarded it.

Things turned out OK; I passed my classes. But it’s not easy to be like the first Mario, who takes a lot of notes and unerringly arrives at an efficient solution.

For instance, consider a seemingly small task—packing for a vacation, picking the right Airbnb, or making a grocery list—that ends up consuming a lot of time as you rack your brain performing exhaustive analysis. At some point, the part of you that wants to get moving may rudely interrupt. It may take some ill-considered shortcut or refocus on a different task entirely, leaving the original one unfinished.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you dive into a pet project at work without thinking it through. Weeks deep, you suddenly realize you neglected getting input from the key stakeholder. Adding in such thoughtfulness retroactively changes the whole project direction, sadly rendering your prior work useless.

Ruml and Crawford precisely specified the bugsy algorithm—Mario’s balanced approach to find middle ground—in their 2005 paper Best-first Utility-guided Search. A couple millenia earlier at the deer park, perhaps the Buddha was preaching the same thing.


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