Douthat's Ignoble Nobel Blunder
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Must Pop Topics! (Or, Why I Can Write Lots About Google Wave, and Not Much About the Rest of the World)

There's a game I just discovered from the excellent game collection over at Good Experience called Must Pop Words.

The idea is that a bunch of letters in balls float down to the bottom of a window, and you have to type words from those letters. At first they float slowly, and then they speed up. If you get to 50 balls, you lose. As Mark Hurst describes it, it's a combination of Tetris and Boggle.

The interesting thing is that I do much better when there are only a few balls, around seven or so. Once I get up to 35 or more balls it gets really hard. You would think it would be the opposite because there are geometrically more words that would be available with 35 letters.

I just finished reading How We Decide, the excellent book that draws in all the latest in neuroscience to help understand how the brain works, especially when it comes to making decisions.

One of the experiments that the author reviewed had to do with choosing a car. I don't have it in front of me, so I'm probably going to butcher this, but I think it went like this: 

Some subjects were asked to pick the best car, and they were given four variables for each of four cars. Some of them were asked to study the grid, and then announce what they thought was the best car. Some others were distracted after studying the list, and then were asked in the midst of distraction for the best choice, just using "gut instinct." 

The group that was not distracted picked the best car based on the four variables. Makes sense.

Then, a different group was asked to study a list of four cars, but for this group there were 16 variables. Again one part of this group was asked to study the list and then without distraction they were asked to announce their pick of the best car. The other part of this group was distracted, and then had to pick using a "gut instinct." Here the results flipped. The ones who got to study picked wrong; it's just impossible to keep 16x4 things in the rational part of your head all at the same time.

The emotional part of your brain -- the one that makes the "gut instinct" kind of decisions -- can keep track in some way so the people in this section way more often picked the car that had the largest number of better variables.

Picking a car, however, is way different from trying to form a word. Our emotional brain can make good decisions, but it can't pick words out of letters. I think that is why I stumble in that game when I have more good choices.

Now, why am I writing about this game?

Because it's interesting, to be sure, but also because of something I've been experiencing this week.

In my spare time I'm writing for Examiner.com. I started with one topic: New Technology. Then I wrote so many articles in that section about Google Wave, that with the help and encouragement of an old friend over at Examiner.com, I ended up starting a whole section devoted to Google Wave News.

Writing about Google Wave I have been unusually prolific, especially since I do most of my writing before breakfast.

But about "New Technology" my production has slipped. A lot.

I think it's because it's like the ball thing. With Wave there is plenty to write about, but really the choices are somewhat limited for a newfangled kind of a communication tool that's been used by, maybe, 0.000001 percent of the world's population.

"New Technology" just has so many possibilities, it's nearly impossible to choose with a rational brain. So, I'll do my best, but the best decisions may be the emotional ones and not the rational ones.