Looking like you know what you’re doing

I’ve been in The Netherlands this week for a conference where I gave a talk on erasure coding. Last night after the conference, my host drove me and another speaker to Schiphol Airport. I’m staying in Amsterdam, but it was easier to drop us both at the airport because it’s a short train ride from there into the city.

After wandering around for a bit, I found where I believed I should wait for the train, though I wasn’t entirely sure. While I was standing there a group of half-drunk young men from Scotland walked to the platform and asked me questions about the train. One of the group thought they were on the wrong platform, but I heard their leader say “He’s got glasses and a beard. He’s obviously more intelligent than us.” Apparently they found this argument convincing and they stayed.

Neither my nearsightedness nor my facial hair made me an expert on Dutch trains. This was my first time catching a train in a new country where most of the signs were written in a language I do not know. I imagine they’ve ridden more trains than I have. The only advantage I had over them was my sobriety. Maybe my experience as a consultant has enabled me to give confidence-insprirng advice on subjects I know less about than I’d like.

Central Station in Amsterdam

16 thoughts on “Looking like you know what you’re doing

  1. I’m glad I had a chance to visit, especially since I got to see some rural parts of the country as well as Amsterdam.

  2. I like that the gang of scottish young men had a leader and that he decided what the group would do.

    So, was it the right train for them? Was it yours?

  3. I’m relieved to hear that facial hair and glasses still make people think ‘intelligent’. I had to give up a long time ago on becoming tall, distinguished, or intimidating.

  4. Mariano: It was the right train for everyone.

    In decision theory, you distinguish between a good decision and a fortunate decision. They made a fortunate decision to trust me: it worked out well. Whether it was a good decision, given only what they knew at the time, is more debatable.

  5. Are you still there? If so, indulge in stroopwafel, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroopwafel. They are fantastic and despite globalization are not widely available everywhere. Observe and delight in bicycling as a real commuting option. Both stroopwafels and bicycling represent good decisions and not merely fortunate decisions.

  6. “You have a cloak, you be our leader”

    Unfortunately, such superficial elements play a large role in choosing men to make much more important decisions.

  7. Farrel: thanks to online retailers (and Dutch tokos in many metro areas), stroopwafels are easily available in the U.S. and Canada. How do I know this? I get them all the time. Mmmm. :)

  8. It’s been said of Americans that the one thing that set us apart from everyone else was the confidence we extrude. 911 dented that somewhat.

  9. Despite the appearances, the thought process of those guys was correct. Combination of glasses and (especially well-groomed) beard is rarely found among the less intelligent parts of society. Given the limited (due to inebriation) mental resources those chaps had at the time to make a decision, that’s probably the best reasoning they could come up with ;-).

    Heuristics have a surprisingly high rate of success in the real world.

  10. Ah, but will you have gray in your beard? The Scotsmen didn’t mention the gray, but that adds to the credibility too. :)

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