Monday, May 18, 2015

Life-Planning: The Anti-Theory Theory

From the US Dept of Transportation website

I took a long drive last week, and since I hate to drive I spent a lot of time pondering the question: How many resources should you spend making a bad experience slightly less bad? Should I make do with the Super 8? Should I try to find a Hilton with a hotel bar? What's the deal with those Residence Inn places, anyway?

It seems to me that one consensus theoretical answer to this question would involve comparing the margin of improvement of the bad experience to other improvement you could make to other experiences with the same resources. Like, if you spent the extra hundred dollars on dinner out, would that dinner out bring you more in positive utils than the Super 8 cost you?

Maybe it's just me, but I feel like of all the ways I'd try to answer the question, this wouldn't be any of them, because I wouldn't have any idea how to compare the positive of some positive experience to the less-badness of some less-bad experience. Is that just me?

How did I try to answer the question? Like, I expect, a lot of people, my first idea had to do with comparing the money I was spending with the money I might have spent traveling in another, more expensive, way. That is, if the plane would have cost X, and my drive without the hotel would cost Y, then I figured that as long as I was spending a fraction of X-Y, I was good to go.

One weird thing about this methodology is that it can countenance surprisingly large amounts of money. If the flight is 700 dollars and you spend a 150 on gas and food, are you really going to spend 550 on a hotel? I didn't think so.

Another weird thing about this methodology is that the decisions you're making about one thing seem to be strangely related to something completely different. I mean, suppose the price of the plane goes up to 1000 dollars. Then the amount it makes sense to spend on the hotel goes up to 850? That seems strange.

Another idea had to do with the appropriate doling out of treats. A nice hotel is a treat. Like a schoolmarm, I asked myself: had I been having a lot of treats lately, or not enough treats? How much of a treat did I deserve on this occasion, and how did the hotel options map on to the treat scale?

But this methodology is also strange, because it doesn't take into account the price. Surely it must matter how much the treat costs?

Another idea that came to me had to do with mood management. Like, I didn't want my mood to fall below a certain point. So I tried to anticipate how frustrated and tired I'd be, and also how much various amenities would ameliorate that, and tried to think how to keep my mental state hovering near "OK, I can deal." Again, though, how to weigh mood management by price? I don't know. 

In the end I think I thought about the various factors I've mentioned and then made some intuitive judgment that felt like it took into account all of them. I settled on a Courtyard Marriott, which, this being the actual world and not a thought experiment, turned out to be booked when I called from a thruway rest stop.

I ended up at a Holiday Inn Express, out on a side street, kind of far away from the main road. As I pulled in and looked around, it occurred to me that I might not be able to walk to a place for dinner and wine, which would have negated any plus points associated with other features completely.

I asked the clerk, and he said "Oh, yes, you can walk to the TGI Fridays, it's about ten minutes along this road and across the street." I did that -- and as I listened to some female student athletes gossip and complain and watched some business guys eat steak and read the new Maz Jobrani book, I was happy. 

It was a little pricey. Did the cost bring me more pleasure than it would have if I'd spent it in another way? How did the margin of improvement of the bad experience compare to other improvements you could make with the same resources?

Honestly? I have no idea.

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