If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.

When I was a grad student at Berkeley, my advisor, Umesh Vazirani, liked to repeat this nugget of wisdom to students, friends, and colleagues. In a single sentence, Umesh was communicating an entire philosophy of life: concentrate on the high-order bits. The squash player who runs back and forth to attempt every shot, the student who’s never late with an assignment, the researcher who stalks an unimportant problem like Captain Ahab: all have succumbed to the tyranny of the low-order bit. They need to realize that, as in a randomized algorithm, occasional failures are the inevitable byproduct of a successful strategy. If you always win, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

On the other hand, having dropped Umesh off at 8PM for an 8:30 international flight, I can attest from personal experience that he was talking about actual air travel as well.

I thought about Umesh’s “Airport Law” on my way to Australia, after I nearly missed my flight out of Heathrow, and then did miss the connection from Sydney to Brisbane, after waiting for an hour in customs so that my luggage could be searched for any contraband fruit or vegetables. I wondered: what other “Umeshisms” are waiting to be discovered? Here are the first four I came up with:

If you never cut yourself while shaving, you’re not shaving close enough.

If you’ve never been robbed, you’re spending too much time locking doors.

If you’ve never been rejected, you’re not asking enough. (The easiest to state, the hardest to practice.)

If you’ve never regretted a blog entry, your blog is boring.

As a tribute to Umesh, I hereby open the comments section to a Best Umeshism Contest. The winner (as chosen by me) earns the right to ask any question, and then have me answer it on this blog, possibly after consulting with Umesh about the high-order bits. The deadline is December 28, 2005, 11:59PM EST. Limit three entries per person. Include your name and/or email.

45 Responses to “Umeshisms”

  1. Mohammad Says:

    Hi Scot. Nice posts.
    I think we’ve never met, although I was a postdoc (just like you) in C&O, Waterloo. Unfortunately, I left there one year before you arrived. Hope to see you somewhere in a conf (SODA?) soon.

  2. Dave Bacon Says:

    If you cannot find the reason, you’re spending too much time thinking.

  3. Wolfgang Says:

    If you get a paper published without a referee complaining, you have either not explained your idea well enough or the idea is not new.

  4. Ari Says:

    My three submissions:

    If you’ve never hit the ground while skydiving, you’re opening your parachute too early.

    If you’ve never gotten food poisoning, you haven’t been eating interesting enough food.

    If you’ve never gotten a speeding ticket, you’re driving too slow.

    It seems like, probabilistically, these Umeshisms are saying: “If you try too hard to reduce the probability of a negative outcome, your positive outcomes will be of smaller magnitude — and your expected outcome can actually be worse.”

    This reminds me of some ideas I ran into in mathematical finance, specifically in the ideas of Nassim Taleb and his book Fooled by Randomness. Most mathematical finance models assume that all strategies have the same expected return — that is, you can choose whatever distribution (“strategy”) you like, but the mean is always the same. In other words, you can’t beat the market. Taleb’s corollary was something like: If you’re beating the market with high probability, you’re setting yourself up for an enormous crash.

    Taleb actually believed that there was a premium for such strategies, due to human psychology and the finance industry’s infatuation with “track records”. People like to do well in probability, and they are willing to pay a penalty in expectation to do so. As such, Taleb believed that the best way to beat the market in the long term is to take the opposite strategy — that is, to do worse than the market most of the time!

  5. Geoff Says:

    If you run an online contest to find a statement which optimally expresses a philosophy of “pragmatism with acceptible losses,” you have not fully adopted a philosophy of “pragmatism with acceptable losses.”

  6. Scott Says:

    Hi Mohammad. I won’t be at SODA, but I should be at STOC and FOCS. Hope to meet you soon!

  7. GASARCH Says:

    If you’ve never had an incorrect proof
    then you’re either not very creative
    or not reading your proofs carefully enough.

    If you’ve never had an article turned
    down then you are spending too much time
    polishing and not enough thinking.

    These Umeshisms are related to another
    concept: The tyranny of the doable.
    There is often lots of things that you
    need to get done that you CAN do
    (e.g., proofreading, cleaning up
    your files) that you may succumb to that
    instead of, say, thinking about P vs NP.

    bill gasarch

  8. Peter Brooke Says:

    If you’ve never had children, then you’re spending too much time using protection.

  9. Eldar Says:

    Well, here is one that is in some sense “extracted” from a joke I once heard:

    If you live to be a hundred and twenty, then you haven’t made the most of your time on this earth.

    Disclaimer: The above does not reflect the opinions of the poster. I’m actually more of a play it safe kind of guy…

  10. Wolfgang Says:

    If you are president and there were never impeachment hearings, you did not break enough laws.

  11. secret milkshake Says:

    If you have no kids, you are not learning about complexity.

    If your boss likes you without reservation, you will make a good son-in-law.

  12. moneyjunkie Says:

    If you publish 10 papers a year, you are either a genius or a researcher producing valueless results.

  13. Mohammad Mahdian Says:

    If you win Scott’s contest, then you’ve probably spent too much time thinking of a good Umeshism.

  14. Mohammad Mahdian Says:

    If you’re not dead, then you’re probably taking life too seriously.

  15. Andrew L. Says:

    If you’ve never written a sentence fragment.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Doesnt umeshisms conflict with your previous stance on not spending so much time doing research and spending more time smelling the roses and dating? or do I totally misunderstand your thesis? It seems to me that people like Kalman and Einstein sacrificed their personal lives for those higher-order bits.

  17. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: Who says “smelling the roses” isn’t a higher-order bit?

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Some people seem to be missing the point of the Umeshism, unfortunately.

    “If you never rinse and then repeat, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

    “bread pudding never white white blue too much time tangerine evacuate”

  19. Anonymous Says:

    how about:

    If all your students graduate, then you’re spending too much time in your office.

  20. moneyjunkie Says:

    My last 2 entries:

    If you earn a lot of money, you have spent too much time working.

    If you win a Nobel prize in physics, you have put too much effort and time in physics’ study.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Is winning a Nobel prize a low-order bit??

  22. Gigi Says:

    If you’ve never made a fool of yourself on the dance floor, you’re not getting out enough.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    The Car Guys on NPR once said something to the effect that “If you don’t stall your standard transmission car at least once a day, you’re not shifting properly.” I understood this to mean that you’re erring too much on the side of letting the clutch out slowly, which is a Bad Thing for wear on the clutch.

    I like this a LOT better than Umesh’s example of the airport, because (i) getting to the airport early means you don’t waste any time worrying about whether you’re going to make the flight and (ii) if you get to the airport early you can sit there and think about problems while people-watching. On the other hand, missing a flight could mean waiting in the airport for ridiculous amounts of time, maybe overnight, and sometimes has a big financial penalty.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    “concentrate on the high-order bits”

    That has always been completely obvious to me. Is it not obvious?

  25. Scott Says:


    “Is it not obvious?”


  26. Bob Dowling Says:

    The closest I have in real life is this:

    If you don’t exceed your authority at least twice a week you aren’t doing your job properly.

    Not a real Umeshism but close.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    If you’ve never been fined $250,000, you’re paying too much for your DVDs.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    If you can always take the heat, you’re not spending enough time in the kitchen.

    Vs lbh pna ernq guvf, lbh’er fcraqvat gbb zhpu gvzr ba vg.

    [The second one would have worked better with something more complex, but would be unreadable].


  29. Anonymous Says:

    Oh, and I don’t think the concept is due to Umesh. heard it from Silivio Micali a long time ago.

  30. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: A quick Google search reveals that it’s probably not due to Micali either. Nor was the “shoulders of giants” quote due to Newton, nor was etc. etc.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    If you’ve never missed a flight, then you don’t know what it’s like to show up at the airport, stand in the wrong line for 20 minutes, be denied a checkin, and then be told that there is nothing available for the next 5 days (through Christmannukah), and then only with a 7-hour layover. So how about this one:

    If you’ve ever missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.

    Thank you for the advice, Umesh Vazirani.

  32. Anonymous Says:

    If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.

  33. Anonymous Says:

    I also recall the saying being attributed to Silvio Micali, back in the 1980s.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    I think the term “Umeshism” must apply to a much larger class of statements, and not just “concentrate on the high-order bit” part of his philosophy. The current usage is like using the term “student of Manuel” to refer to Umesh alone.

  35. Anonymous Says:

    If you’ve never been deported, you’re too careful with your immigration documents.

  36. Anonymous Says:

    if you hair is too tidy, then you spent too much time combing.

  37. Anonymous Says:

    If you’ve never been captured and eaten by the natives, you’re spending too much time in your canoe.

  38. Miss HT Psych Says:

    If you’ve never broken the bed, you’re not experimenting enough.

  39. D. Sivakumar Says:

    If you’ve never been audited by the IRS, you’re paying too much taxes. (IRS = Internal Revenue Service, for the non-Americans reading this blog).

  40. Anonymous Says:

    Unrelated suggestion for Scott:

    If you differ from Lance Fortnow in your assessment of the year in complexity, want to draw attention to other recent complexity developments, or have hopes for the next year, we’d love to hear them.

  41. BRAD =) Says:

    If you haven’t won a pointless online contest, you are spending too much time constructively.

    If you haven’t offered a narcissistic prize for a pointless online contest, you don’t love yourself enough.

    If you don’t understand what I’m trying to say, you must not be a very good scientist.

    Too bad I missed the deadline.

  42. Moshe Rozali Says:

    Nice game, and I am a little late. How about:

    If your speculations are not universally attacked as complete nonsense, you are being too conservative.

    (My question would have been “what would a theoretical physicist hope to learn from research on quantum complexity”, but I am late…)

  43. Anonymous Says:

    If you are still alive you did not live dangerously enough

    The bit one place to the left to the most significant bit is zero.

    Do not waste your high-bit-principles on airports.

    All significant bits are significant; we often cannot tell looking at which bit will turn out being important. Look at many bits.

    Remember, not everything in life can be translated into bits.

  44. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Best anthropicism contest Says:

    […] Inspired by Peter Woit’s almost-daily anti-anthropic broadsides, and in the spirit of my earlier Best Umeshism Contest, I hereby announce a new contest for Best Application of the Anthropic Principle. Here are a few samples to get the self-selected tautological ball rolling, not that it could do otherwise than roll: Why do so many people seem to care about being remembered after they die? Because we only remember the ones who cared about being remembered. […]

  45. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » A Euclidean theater of misery Says:

    […] As winner of the Best Umeshism Contest (remember that?), Peter Brooke earned the right to ask me any question and have me answer it on this blog. Without further ado, here is Peter’s question: If it is assumed that God exists, what further, reasonable, conclusions can be made, or is that where logical inquiry must end? Reasonable means in the light and inclusive of present scientific understanding. Defend any assumptions and conclusions you make. At least Peter was kind enough not to spring “Is there a God?” on me. Instead, like a true complexity theorist, he asks what consequences follow if God’s existence is assumed. […]