Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Pokémon Syndrome

Originally written in December 2011
Image placeholder:? Professor Oak, a middle-aged man with greying hair, stands in an adventurous pose clad in typical Pokémon Trainer gear, including a baseball cap, a jacket, a backpack, shorts, tennis shoes, and hanging from his belt, a number of colorful hand-held devices.
Caption: Lets do this! (Again!)

Go do something you haven't done in a few years. Preferably something you've only done once. Something you really didn't do so well at. You think this time it'll be different: you're older, wiser, and have as and advantage over last time that there was a last time you can now look back to.

Except that… you don't.

After a while, you'll realize you're doing everything exactly the same! It turns out that when forced to make the same decisions under the same conditions, you'll come out with the same results. This is good: it means you are still the same person you were years ago; but it's also bad, because it means that, like a machine, given the same settings – the same input – you produce the same output; you haven't changed – haven't learned.

I call this "the Pokémon syndrome" because I discovered it playing the Pokémon games.

When I finally got to play Pokémon Ruby in 2003, I was really excited about it. I was young an impetuous so I naturally wanted to squeeze out of the game everything it had to offer. I played practically every day, talked to everybody, tried to capture all the Pokémon I saw, and tried to explore every nook and cranny to make sure I didn't miss anything worthwhile. One thing I remember in particular was that when I discovered that Wurmple (the caterpillar pokémon of the game) had two possible evolutions, I had to get two to be able to see them both, so I caught and carried two with me (which meant that I couldn't carry the pokémon I really wanted, and constantly had to switch between that one and one of my Wurmples) and then decide which of the two evolutions I liked best.

In 2005, Pokémon Emerald came out, and I hadn't really played anything since finishing Pokémon Ruby. I was really excited about it, so I naturally wanted to squeeze out of the game everything it had to offer. When I was reminded that Wurmple had two possible evolutions, I had to get two, so I caught and carried two with me (which meant that I couldn't carry the pokémon I really wanted). It was two weeks before I realized I was doing the same thing over again. While not a mistake per se, it was negatively affecting how I was playing the game, as I was spending time and energy on a pokémon I couldn't keep, neglecting the ones I could. In fact, if you considered that I could've just brought over the "other one" from the other game, I was actually wasting time and energy on two pokémon.

Image: A large dog lies down, his front paws crossed, his eyes slightly closed. Caption:
It's a realization that makes you feel kind of like this

You may be wondering why I'm bringing this up now. You see, I've been taking Statistics… again… and, like last time, I found that while the official textbook (the one by Wackerly, Mendenhall and Scheaffer) did a good job of explaining why things were the way they were, it did a terrible job of explaining how the math problems in it were actually solved!

Allan Bluman, on the other hand, does an excellent job of explaining how to do the math well (even though the library hasn't bought any editions of his book since 1995) so I figured I'd learn how to do that first – since that's what the tests were about anyway – and then look at the official textbook for the big picture, and the stuff that Wackerly et al. covered that Bluman didn't.

The only thing is, this was exactly what I had done the first time I'd seen statistics. And what had happened? I had spent too much time on Bluman's exercises and had barely had enough time to peek into the official textbook; and then on the test they had asked stuff that wasn't in Bluman's book, but was in the other! I was following my previous footsteps so well, that I skipped question 2 on the test and returned to it later… exactly as I had done the first time I saw it!

So here I am, there I was waiting for my grade. Though, if the machine rule of "same input, same output" still applies, I can't couldn't be too optimistic on it.


The character of Professor Oak, and the design of all the clothes he's wearing, is property of The Pokémon Company. The author believes that their use here is allowed under Japanese copyright law.

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