2789: Making Plans

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Making Plans
Oh no, I haven't checked in with Yvonne in YEARS.
Title text: Oh no, I haven't checked in with Yvonne in YEARS.


This comic is about bias due to alphabetical order. According to Wikipedia, "The practice in certain fields of ordering citations in bibliographies by the surnames of their authors has been found to create bias in favor of authors with surnames which appear earlier in the alphabet, while this effect does not appear in fields in which bibliographies are ordered chronologically."[1] Similar effects have also been identified with the ordering of candidates on ballot papers.[2] In essence, humans tend to favor whatever is at the top of any given list or data set, or may only assess the first few options until they reach one that is 'good enough', thus never evaluating those further down the list; this is one reason why random shuffling is important in any scientifically rigorous trial or opinion survey.

In the comic, Cueball is telling Megan about some of his upcoming plans; tonight he had arranged a meet-up with contacts whose names start with A or B, tomorrow's socializing involves a larger group of A-contacts, but there seems some doubt over some of them.

By this point, though, there is a clear pattern: Cueball has been contacting friends based upon their alphabetical priority in his list of names, instead of making more practical social decisions. One alternative is to maintain contact with those who (regardless of name) were already in more recent and ready contact, perhaps by rearranging the list by "most recently talked to". Although, arguably, this could also be socially detrimental; anyone who happened to descend out of recent contact might never be contacted ever again. Again, these social pitfalls are something that almost everyone has to try to deal with, but Cueball's 'logical' way of handling it is ironically one of the more socially illogical methods available.

The title text continues the joke, implying that Cueball rarely makes it to the bottom of his alphabetical list; as such, he has not reached out to his friend Yvonne in a very long time. She may even have assumed he has been ghosting her, having seemingly not attempted to make return contact for that while either, but Cueball seems unable to distinguish between willing and enthusiastic contacts in general so his general social ineptness may be as much to blame as the enforced alphabetical priority of his friendship groups.

Peculiar effects of alphabetization were also the subject of 2927: Alphabetical Cartogram.


[Cueball is talking to Megan.]
Cueball: Tonight is pub trivia with Annie and Beth.
Cueball: And tomorrow Alex and I are seeing a movie. I also invited Andrew and Amy but I haven't heard back.
[Caption below the panel:]
I'm realizing I should really switch to sorting my phone contacts by most recent.

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Help, I can't move my comment down! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA 01:28, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

Here I was expecting something about cryptography and how Charlie just invited himself along. 04:08, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

The alphabetical citation bias occurred in psychology but not biology or geoscience. (Biologist married to psychologist, gloating.) ---- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think the Wikipedia quote and reference link may be obsolete. It was a big deal when it was published half a decade ago, but editors took note, and now almost every peer reviewed paper gets references listed by the order they occur in the text, don't they? Surely there must be some post-2018 sources on this from journals saying they've changed their style guides we can include? 22:06, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
I've been a sounding board for a friend's journey to getting her Masters in English, giving her feedback on all of her papers for the last 2 years, and the rules she's required to follow are still to list her references alphabetically. And there have been 3 styles: mostly the MLA style, she could often choose APA instead, and one paper she had to figure out Chicago (Purdue maintains a current list of rules to follow for each, OWL, we keep checking it for syntax, and all 3 specify alphabetical, as have her professors. And EVERY peer-reviewed/published work she has cited - and at this level peer-reviewed is the minimum - THEIR references have been listed alphabetically, too). So you can check OWL, AFAIK the authority on writing styles: https://owl.purdue.edu/ (I think MLA was even changed/updated in the last 2 years while we've been doing this) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)
One of my CS advisors told us to always use text order. When we asked about what to do when a journal says to use Alphabetic ordering, and he told us that he has been submitting to those journals with his ordering for 20 years and no one has ever mentioned it, so official or not, that is the de facto standard (in CS at least). Jamcdonald (talk) 04:08, 19 June 2023 (UTC)
Surely, in CS, you should be sorting all references by their absolute memory address for optimisation purposes! ;) 14:36, 19 June 2023 (UTC)

I disagree with the explanation about the alphabetical sorting of Cueball on Yvonne's phone. AFAIK, Cueball is only the fan nickname given on this wiki, and not an in-universe name, right? Names starting with R would be pretty far down an alphabetical list, like in Rob... or Randall 06:49, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

I agree and have already deleted this. Made a comment on my changes along the idea you wrote here. --Kynde (talk) 07:04, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
Yeah, Cueball (and White Hat, Black Hat, Curly, etc) are only names here. In-universe, I think the only names are Megan and Mrs. What's-her-face the science teacher (starts "Lehn-" I'm sure) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)
There are Rob, Megan, Miss Lenhart, Mrs. Roberts, Elaine Roberts, Robert'); DROP TABLE Students;-- and Danish who's name has been used in xkcd. Although Danish name was probably a nick name like calling her Danish (like Danish pastry). But Megan is still just as much an every woman as Cueball is an every man and most other characters are not the same from comic to comic but maybe have some traits shared. There has been a discussion if Cueball should be called Rob and if not if Megan should be called Cutie. But nothing came of it (luckily imho). --Kynde (talk) 16:29, 19 June 2023 (UTC)
I DO NOT remember any Rob (???), I don't remember who Mrs. Roberts is, and Elaine only that I'm pretty sure she's the daughter... I vaguely recall when Danish got her name, I recall disagreeing that her name was supposed to BE Danish in that comic, that this was a mistake on the part of Explain XKCD... Maybe that the idea was that a stranger didn't know her name and was just referring to her by the pastry she was holding? And as such, no, she's not a member of this list, :) I agree, Cueball should stay Cueball, and Megan is CALLED Megan by Randall, her name is untouchable (Cutie??? LOL!).
EDIT: Just checked, I think Mrs. Roberts is missing some appearances because I KNOW Bobby Tables came up again. And I was right, Danish was never her name, it wasn't even a nickname, it was just a term of endearment. Randall could have just used "sweety" and her name on here would be Sweety! NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:49, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

I feel like a better reference point for this than academic citations or ballot paper ordering would be old paper phone directories, where you'd find companies calling themselves things like 'AAA Assistance' in order to appear at the top of their sector listings. Can anyone find a non-anecdotal reference for this? 09:06, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

I know I've heard of such instances, and seen such in person (if I still had any phone books, got tossed in the last move a few years ago). I KNOW I've seen a few jokes about this. Wasn't there even an XKCD something like "I think business will pick up now that I've renamed my company AAAAA Movers"? NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)
Indeed, my father started his used furniture business in 1945 and named it "Ace Bargain Center" in order to be first in the yellow pages in the furniture store category. He was very upset when a competitor named his business "ABC Furniture", and then someone else came along and used the name "AAA furniture". Of course, search engines take advantage of the "top of the list bias" by charging more for results that appear on the top 5 or 10 search results. -- Rtanenbaum (talk) 22:15, 17 June 2023 (edit) (undo) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

If only people were like books... (I have (re)read far more Asimov and Clarke than Wells and Zelazny, but none of them complain!) ...but clearly no absolute ordering is perfect. "Most recently contacted" suffers from the problem of some new contacts shuffling someone out of the current head-of-list spot and then they plummet to the 'old' end. "Least recently contacted" would be better, but would 'auto-ghost' everyone the moment contact is re-established (or attempted, if it was based upon your reaching out, not their deigning to reach back again).
Perhaps a "rolling road-block" method of (say) today starting at A, tomorrow starting at B(/wherever you left off today), and so on until it wraps around Z->A again. Or half your "social management" spent at the top-end, a quarter of it jumps half way down, an eighth of it half of the rest of the way, a sixteenth by jumping a further half of the remainder, with discretion to look up and down from the proposed landing-point to choose a neighbouring contact with more hopefulbcontactability... That latter would work even better on a "by most recent contact" sort, as well, as it churns and refreshes the current social circles to regain valuable 'lost' contacts without overly penalising the current circle of recent acquaintences in such a paradoxical manner.
Of course... the fewer friends you have, the simpler the problem! I have never been so happy to be a sub-Dunbar individual, and so not have all the anxieties that those with exceedingly active social lives must have! Even if it means I might just have to phone my water-company up, every now and then, to bitch about how my telephone company forgot my birthday and is now refusing to return my calls... ;) 09:29, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

Wouldn't it be easier just to have randomised ordering each time you load? Of course, all of this overlooks the primary reason for having them alphabetical in the first place - to be able to locate a specific contact when you have a specific reason for contacting them, which any of these other systems would make a pain in the arse. 09:34, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
But which (pseudo-)random reordering? Can you guarantee thst your LCG/LFSR/Mersenne implementation, and how it is consulted to shuffle and reprioritises your contacts, has sufficiently long cycle-periodicity to avoid you still entirely neglecting someone because they still usually end up below any cut-off point?!? 09:47, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
Depends, obviously, on how long the list is, but I think that would be VERY unlucky. That said, more deterministic order could be more reliable. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:58, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
Clearly, the correct is an AI social helper who will remind you to reach out to friends you haven't contacted recently, along with keeping track of birthdays, anniversaries, and other special reasons to contact everyone in your social circle. All the while, it would be learning your language patterns and voice, so that you can eventually just let it take over your social life entirely. You can hang out with your three real friends while your AI hangs out with the AIs of the fifty people in your contact list that you don't actually remember. (Is it obvious I'm an introvert?) 10:11, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
("... three real friends"? You socialite. If only I were such a shameless party animal!) 10:27, 15 June 2023 (UTC)
Speaking about birthdays ... if you always contact person on birthday, you have practical guarantee you won't have anyone not contacted more than year! -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:58, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

As a person with an A name, I find I often get pocket-dialed by various people. Discussing this with people whose names start at the other end of the alphabet, they observed that they never got pocket-dialed. Is this another example of the same phenomenon, or do I have a case of innaccurate anecdotal evidence? Thisfox (talk) 22:48, 15 June 2023 (UTC)

I remember 15 years ago in Belgian hospitals the "A Blind Call" campaign which was an overtaxed phone number whose profits were given back to medical research (maybe about sight issues for the extra pun?). Their main argument was that your accidental pocket-dials would accidently help people instead of waking up your friend Alexia. So while I can't confirm alphabetical bias was common, it was at least a well-known enough half-joke in the pre-smartphone era to justify printing words about it, at which point you can apply XKCD#808 to the concepts from XKCD#870!2. 07:39, 16 June 2023 (UTC)
Funny, I have an A name and haven't experienced this. My received pocket dials are always people I recently spoken to, so probably redials. (Funny, MOST often these days is a friend named Alexia, LOL!) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)
Tonight I found out Alexia's frequent buttdials ARE because I'm the first A in her phone, LOL! NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:09, 1 July 2023 (UTC)

Genuine question; do we actually need an explanation of the various reasons why someone might not have heard back yet about an event? 05:44, 16 June 2023 (UTC)

I agree. I came to the discussion primarily because I thought the enumeration of why some non-responses might happen was completely beside the point. MAP (talk) 06:42, 16 June 2023 (UTC)
Yeah, some speculation is usually funny (I still remember the stealing an airplane explanation that added that a police car = one donut). But in this case it is simply... meaningless and making the text harder to read for no reason? 08:32, 16 June 2023 (UTC)
I get the feeling that Randall alluded to an error of that kind to indicate how Cueball's over-thought 'engineering' process was actually under-/mis-thought as a 'social' one. But perhaps he didn't realise how non-obvious the comic motive was. Because, without the 'failures', it might seem that Cueball is actually being both practical and efficient (until the punchline). And I might suggest it was because he had outdated contact info (fits with the lack-of-recency idea), someone else might imagine it was because they were in another city/country (because he's so indiscriminate in who he contacts), etc. Better to speculate than to edit-war as those who are (differently) confident try to impose their idea on those who don't know what is going on.
Alternately, he (Randall) knows there's multiple problems he (Cueball) is falling for. In which case those in need of explanation also need to know the range of issues.
In fact, I can think of additional explanations that nobody put there already, and highly tempted to add them (whilst streamlining some wording of the current valid set). But, given your complaints, I'll hold back a bit. No point adding to something that gets completely removed due to a prevailing (or singular, but very definite) counter-opinion. 08:41, 16 June 2023 (UTC)
The editors of this site, as a group, seem addicted to long explanations. :) Like there's a rumour that Longer = Clearer (my experience screams the opposite, the longer I get the more misunderstandings people find). Or just an eagerness to contribute. NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)

When changing your strategy from contacting people in alphabetically order to contacting people by most recent you'd end up contacting people in alphabetical order because the lists are identical. You'd need to delete your contact-history first. Kimmerin (talk) 07:10, 16 June 2023 (UTC)

Except you now grant priority to people who *just answered*, or even contact you firsthand 08:32, 16 June 2023 (UTC)

With the Discord username change coming, I might as well completely overhaul my profile, so I'm thinking of names that start with "not". Why? Because `!` is the operator for logical NOT. So I have an excuse to haul my username with an exclamation mark. 15:51, 16 June 2023 (UTC)

Okay there Bobby Tables. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 06:32, 17 June 2023 (UTC)
Nadia? Or you could also find a name that starts with "bang".

I heard that the Apple company chose the name "Apple" partly because it wants to appear above its rival in the alphabetical list. I also heard that people whose names begin with A have the longest life expectancy. ColorfulGalaxy (talk) 20:56, 25 June 2023 (UTC)

An interesting solution to the issue of alphabetically-ordered authors was proposed recently in a paper Every Author as First Author MMK21 (talk) 13:04, 29 June 2023 (UTC)