Three Simple Rules for Buying a Computer (Or Anything Else)Can we make a set of some simple rules to help a person decide what new computer to buy, or what new camera to buy? Can those rules be extended to include more complex decisions such as selecting a mate, or even deciding if you want a permanent mate?

There are no simple rules that will always yield the optimum result for such real life decisions, but there are simple rules that can eliminate many of the bad choices so that the final decision is more likely to be satisfactory if not optimum. Applied correctly, these simple rules can aid by reducing a frustrating multi-valued decision down to one of manageable size without overly intellectualizing and wasting time with analysis paralysis. Too often we agonize over making the absolutely best decision when the difference between best and second best is small or even not well-defined.

Psychologists studying human sensitivity use an important parameter, Just Noticeable Difference (JND). For instance, you can raise the volume of a test note until a person can detect the change. That is one JND. Similarly, one can define a JVD, or Just Valuable Difference. When faced with deciding between many options, compare any two until one of barely more valued than the other. That is a JVD. In many decisions, like buying a computer, there is only one or two JVDs between the top choices. Simply eliminating the obvious bottom choices and picking randomly (or at least not agonizing over) a final choice is best. The concept of a JVD is a powerful aid to decision making.

To see how this might work, consider first a more simple decision making problem with a well-defined framework. Within the confines of the rules of chess, you desire to win a game. Which next move is best? You are not a master or even an expert, but you enjoy the game and want to avoid making foolish blunders. If you occasionally win, that is great. Are there some simple rules to follow without “learning the book” for the opening, using knowledge for the mid-game, and well-known strategies for the end-game?

Chess as an example hits home to me because as a young man, I could play a pretty good game, but recently my stepson beat me easily in two sequential games of chess. This should not have been a surprise since these were the first games I have played face to face with an opponent in over thirty years. One major contributor to my loss was that I forgot the advice my uncle gave me when I was a boy learning the game. This advice applies to beginners, but it good advice for everyone. It consists of three simple rules: (1) make only moves that help your position; (2) check to make sure the piece you moved is protected and: (3) check to make sure you have not left a piece unprotected. Following these three rules will not guarantee a win, but they will sure help to prevent you from making stupid mistakes. Of course they implicitly assume you are developing a game strategy, but these rules do not help you define that strategy. They only act as checks to eliminate as many of the bad moves as possible with the hope that you can examine the reduced set of possible good moves and select one consistent with your game plan.

How would those rules translate into aids in buying a new computer? One translation might be: (1) ask why you are considering the purchase; (2) check that the price fits your budget and; (3) decide what you are giving up to make the purchase. This is a loose translation from the rigid world of chess with defined rules to the much less defined world of commercial purchases, but the underlying logic is similar.

Note that I make no value judgements for you about the appropriateness of your answer to point (1). If you want a new computer because it is in a blue case with blue LEDs on the power supply, who am I to quibble? The only point of step (1) is that you deliberately become aware of why you want to purchase something. Point (2) is analogous to making sure the chess piece you move is protected. If it does not fit in your budget, then you have to go at risk (credit) to purchase. Point (3) is analogous to not leaving a piece unprotected by your move. If you overspend for a computer, will you be able to afford new tires for your car? If you buy a new computer, where will you put it, and what will become of the old one?

Similar translations of the chess rules can be made to help make decisions on other types of purchases or activities. For instance, do I want to go bungee jumping? This has two levels of questions. First, it is a purchase similar to buying a computer, and then it is a risk taken with the expectation of a rewarding rush. The purchase decision is obviously influenced by the risk taking decision, but separating the two considerations in this way can help eliminate bad choices.

In comparison to the many inexact parameters of deciding to buy a computer or bungee jump, checking to see if a chess piece is protected is an exact activity. Checking to see if a bungee jump is safe (protecting your head, for instance), is less exact, but that does not mean the analogy fails. Spending $40 for a jump fits my budget better than a $120 jump, but is the crew as competent and safety conscious?

Like most people who are honest, I have no serious advice on applying these simple rules to selection of a suitable mate. Honesty, hard work, and luck are good tools for that decision. If you figure out anything better, let me know.

In fact, that very uncertainty is part of the attraction of chess playing where all the options are laid out in front of you and your responses are a limited set of defined moves. Life is more difficult than chess.

CC licensed Flickr photo at the top of the page shared by garethjmsaunders.