309: Shopping Teams

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Shopping Teams
I am never going out to buy an air conditioner with my sysadmin again.
Title text: I am never going out to buy an air conditioner with my sysadmin again.


Randall is comparing the ways different people look at choosing between similar products. In the first example, which Randall considers "bad," two "non-nerds" look at two products (without a description of any kind) and instantly decide which one they want. In the second example, which is considered "good," one of the two is a nerd, and the other one is a non-nerd. The non-nerd instantly picks one of the products, but the nerd evaluates the two and decides that the other one is better because it's a better deal. In both the first two cases, the pair is able to easily come to a decision.

However, in the third example, two nerds are comparing the two boxes, and both of them overanalyse the various merits and drawbacks on each of the two boxes. They are still there two hours later, unable to reach a clear agreement on which of the two boxes they wish to buy. One nerd comments that their definition of value is unclear, suggesting that the discussion has gone on for so long because they are re-evaluating their definitions over something too trivial. Some might perceive this as typical "nerd" behaviour, overanalysing a problem that is in actual fact quite trivial, such as the decision whether to buy one box or the other virtually identical box. The non-nerd woman from the second situation (or perhaps the store manager in this situation), who has watched the two nerds compare the two products for hours, attempts to put this into perspective by pointing out that an unclear definition of value is not their main problem. The implication is that their real main problem is that they are unable to reach an agreement on something that makes so little difference. Or their problem could be the one described in 1445: Efficiency.

The title text suggests that Randall entered a similar situation attempting to buy an air conditioner with his sysadmin, short for System administrator. The sysadmin is a person in an organization employed to manage the computer system or network, a role that requires technical skills and intelligence. The suggestion here is that a computer programmer, like Randall, put together with a sysadmin, would spend as much attention to detail as the two nerds in the comic, laboring over which of two trivially similar products to buy.

Randall deals with sysadmins again in 705: Devotion to Duty.


[Three teams are looking at a counter with two cubes on it. Above it all is written in very large letters:]
Shopping teams
[Above the first team consisting of two Cueball-like guys is written the following text (the first line written with larger letters):]
Two non-nerds
Non-nerd 1: Let's get that one.
Non-nerd 2: Okay.
[Above the second team consisting of a Blondie and a Cueball-like guy is written the following text (the first line written with larger letters):]
Non-nerd + nerd
Blondie non-nerd: Let's get that one.
Cueball nerd: Wait, I think that one might be a better deal.
Blondie non-nerd: Okay, that one.
[Above the third team consisting of two Cueball-like guys is written the following text (the first line written with larger letters):]
Very Bad:
Two Nerds
Nerd 1: How about that one?
Nerd 2: I think the other one might be the better deal...
Nerd 1: Hmm, I'm not sure...
[Inside a big arrow pointing straight down:]
Two Hours
[The two Cueball-like guys are sitting on the floor in front of the counter, both having their laptops open and with lots of paper sheets spread around them, as well as a pen. Blondie from the second team comes in from the right and raises her arms:]
Nerd 1: I think our main problem is our unclear definition of value.
Blondie non-nerd: That is not your main problem!

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The big problem with nerds is that they so frequently fail to place value on their own time. If you search through newspapers to find the best coupons to save a couple of dollars, I highly doubt that the amount of money you are saving is more than minimum wage. This applies to anything nerds end up spending so much time on. If you spend that time shopping around, clipping coupons or trading in TF2 because its fun, fine. But if you are in it for some sort of profit, its probably a waste of time. 06:38, 6 June 2014 (UTC)

People always do math against the person's earning potential. However, that's such a fallacy. If said person was bored of work after a 40 hour week / 8 hour days, clipping coupons would be a relief. And in this case since their earning potential has been reached (because they are unwilling to work more hours), but they are ok with clipping coupons, this is actually more profitable than watching TV. Also, if the person had a family and managed to turn the activity into a family activity, then not only did they gain bonding time, they are also limited to how much time they can work. Unless you want to assume that some person can work more than 40 hours a week at optimal effort up to the limit which affects their health, no, not every minute is equal in earning potential. Cflare (talk) 14:29, 21 July 2014 (UTC)
This exchange felt like the second panel. A non-nerd fails to analyze the situation adequately and a nerd jumps in and saves the day. -- Flewk (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
If I recall, in economics class, value wasn't measured in literal earning potential, but literal enjoyment. Working was only considered valuable if the money you earned was worth more than the time you lost. Actually, it seemed most things would be measured in enjoyment. An example I particularly remember is if you planned to own a $15,000 car for 5 years, then you needed to have at least "$3,000 worth of enjoyment" each year in order for the car to be considered worth buying. While we cannot say necessarily that the nerds will be saving enough money to justify the time wasted in terms of earning potential, given the general tone of xckd, it would likely be correct to say that the time they spent trying to decide cost them more enjoyment than they'd likely receive from the savings on whatever it is that they are buying. -- I feel lost 09:23, 2 February 2016 (UTC)
No, because that automatically assumes that the time you spent clipping coupons (or whatever nerdy activity is under consideration) would be replaced with an activity making more money than that. Or that all individuals should always be engaged in productive and profitable activities. But if your perceived alternatives are either clipping coupons or watching television, then the choice is clear. What it all seems to come down to is our unclear definition of value. 15:05, 15 April 2016 (UTC)

Who is Randall's sysadmin? Does he even have one? -- 04:48, 25 June 2014 (UTC)

Quote from the about page: "Server maintenance and most of the coding for these sites is done by my friend davean, who tries hard to remain invisible but can be reached at [email protected]." Davidy²²[talk] 09:45, 25 June 2014 (UTC)

There is a community portal discussion of what to call Cueball and what to do in case with more than one Cueball. I have added this comic to the new Category:Multiple Cueballs. In this case there is no reason to call any one of them Cueball. So I have changed to remove Cueball--Kynde (talk) 13:34, 15 March 2015 (UTC)