Titling this post was a challenge: The Engineer and the Mayonnaise was tempting, but I am reluctant thinking about what Googlers might be thinking if the search engines bring them here.  No matter.  The nameplate says “Tech, Biz and Open Source Brains,” and we will get around to all three here.

This post is about abundance, which is a persistent theme with regard to information technologies here at CrustyBytes.  This morning I shopped for the annual purchase of mayonnaise.  My store had 38 distinct choices of mayonnaise.  When I counted, several shoppers steered wide to put a more comfortable distance between themselves and me.  I marvel — what an incredible abundance and what a marvelous supply chain that can deliver 38 choices for that once-a-year moment when I will buy the stuff.

Human brains are wired to expect scarcity, or more accurately, to prefer behaviors that would improve our chances of survival in the face of scarcity.  So confrontation with 38 choices of mayonnaise is not something we are tuned for, evolutionarily speaking.  Choose poorly and I face a year less than delighted with my choice of mayonnaise.  I lived 4 years in Europe, where my neighborhood store and supply chain were tuned to bicycle and pedestrian patrons, and  offered 2 choices of mayonnaise.  I vividly recall repatriating to the U.S. , where the supply chain is tuned to the SUV-equipped shopper, and feeling absolutely paralyzed at the sight of the choices presented — mayonnaise and everything else.

What to do?  3 choices come to mind:

  1. If I had a therapist, I could ask her for coping skills for the anxiety.  After all, I will be living with the choice for a year and what if I get it wrong? Think of the buyer’s remorse.  On the other hand, thinking one needs to talk to a therapist about mayonnaise anxiety is a sure sign of needing a therapist, and my budget is not in shape for that level of recursion.
  2. I could model my dilemma in the form of an equation, and solve for it.  The years have de-tuned my write-down-and-solve-the-equation skills, but it could be done.
  3. I could take some of the ubiquitous, free computing I am always talking about and run a few hundred thousand simulations in search of mayonnaise choice happiness.    …     Yep.  That’s my ticket.

Here’s how I modeled it.  First, apologies to my friends at P&G who know so much about this stuff that I am sure they know what I will pick, and why, before I stop the shopping cart.

  1. 38 choices.
  2. Despite my refined palate, I would be happy with some number of them.
  3. I try a small number of them, and record the one I like best.
  4. The question becomes, how many to sample to be reasonably sure I get one that qualifies as one of my winners.

Here’s what the results look like for the case where I imagine there are 3 which I would accept as best.

mayo-400w1The results show I have to try at least 4 before I get a better than 50:50 chance of selecting one of the three I imagined as best for me.  After trying 9, the chances diminish smoothly.  The logic is well explained in Digital Dice, by Paul J. Nahin, in the context of dating and marriage. The stakes for mayo are much lower.

The simulation was done using Octave, an open source math package available free under the GNU General Public License. Powerful, elegant and free — yet another amazing example of the abundant information technology available to everyone.  In fact, here are the components I used:

  1. Octave for a simple program to run 10,000s of simulations;  running thousands now, while writing this post, with no noticeable degradation in my computer’s performance for my typing.  In this sense, the computing processor is free for solving these simulations.
  2. Octave has an installed java-based plotting package, jhandles, for generating wonderful plots.  Because it just works, you and I do not need to know this, other than to acknowledge the fine work (Michael Goffioul) and powerful results. I  subscribe to the picture-worth-a-thousand-words school of thought.
  3. Picnik to edit/crop the plot output into a pleasing form.  Free and no registration required.

Here’s the real headline: the $2.34 I spent on the jar of mayonnaise is more than I spent on the vast computing and simulation capability at my fingertips to explore the whimsical dilemma of making a shopping choice in the face of abundance.  What’s more, I had to drive to the store to buy the mayo.  The simulation tools and the documentation, came to me over the internet.

We live in an amazing time of computing abundance, and have hardly begun to realise the implications or possibilities.  db