Of Aliens, Monte Cristo and Lame Lines

Megan McArdle has a long and busy thread about lonely hearts: Reader Thoughts: Why Pickup Artists Are Lame. As you might expect it has attracted far more reader interest than discussions on serious subjects like the economy, immigration or national security. One day the editors of the Atlantic will tumble on to the reason why the National Enquirer has a larger circulation than itself. But one commenter in particular stands out: a guy called Downfall.


Downfall is an example of that strange but real species, the man who can’t understand women. The trouble is, he likes them. Or at least wants them to notice him. So rather pathetically, he is seeking advice on how he can be the Magnet Man.

Megan et. al.: I asked in the last thread, and got only deafening silence, so I’ll ask again: For heterosexual men who lack the skill set required to attract a woman– which is surely a non-trivial segment of the male population, given the demand for pickup artist services, sex workers, and the like– do you have a better suggestion on where they should seek the information and training they need to succeed at what is traditionally considered a vital part of the human condition, or is this solely a case of mocking the only avenue of help available to a segment of the population that’s suffering? If a man has tried “being himself” and “liking himself for who he is” and all the other hoary advice offered to men so situated, only to continue to fail with no reason to think things are going to get better, what would you suggest he do if not seek the advice of the pickup artist community?

The responses have ranged from sympathy to incredulity. Some readers have basically asked him why he shouldn’t seek similar advice on how to breathe: if you don’t know how to interact with women, they argue, then it is pointless to ask, because it is not a skill that can be learned from a manual. Others are not so sure. Some men described their success on ‘dating sites’ as due to the ability to get on a wavelength. A certain ‘DocPat’ argues that the key advantage is that dating sites have cut down the sample only to those interested. It’s a filter and as a result you get a pure signal.


1. You know that all the women there are looking for a date. None of this confusion about “just here to dance” or “I’m just here with my friends” or “I’m married/engaged/with someone”.
2. The initial approach and conversation is via text. Body language free. Removes a big area where you may be going wrong and allows you to concentrate on just saying (typing) the right thing.
3.You can take the time to choose your words carefully. Write and re-write. No saying something stupid because you have to reply in the next 5 seconds.
4. It is much, much easier to approach a lot of women via an internet site than it is in real life. Send off messages to 10 people at once, if you only get one reply, concentrate on her.

Of course all of these preliminaries simply postpone the inevitable moment of personal meeting; the time when the man on the instant messaging site sits across a table from the lady in question and she notices little things like nose hairs and dental work, if any has been done and conversational style. Suddenly the bandwidth increases again and not necessarily in Magnet Man’s favor. The possibility again arises that poor old Downfall may find that maybe he’s just not cut out for her. The mismatch moment is brought home by a scene from Dumb and Dumber which is, if it is about anything, a treatise on Mr. Hopeless.

Lloyd: The least you could do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean like one out of a hundred?
Mary: More like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance.


The signal has to be decoded at each end and that doesn’t always go so well. The problems with making a connection are almost universal. Some Australian academics have implemented a self-discovering communications network to create a cell phone system where there are no regular towers. The idea is simple. With the right software and an optional hardware assist, modified cell phones can find a kindred device within range which in turn can find another. By a process of self-organization and accumulation a bunch of devices can construct their own communications system.

Dr Gardner-Stephen said the device essentially “incorporates a compact version of a mobile phone tower into the phone itself.” It uses the Wi-Fi interface in modern Wi-Fi-enabled phones, carrying voice over it in such a way that it does not need to go back to a tower anywhere.

The current range between phones is only a few hundred meters, which limits the usefulness of the system in remote areas, but Gardner-Stephen said adding small transmitters and more devices could expand the range considerably.

Or maybe you could do it with transceivers and repeaters. The idea behind self-discovering networks is very old. Take the story in the Count of Monte Cristo when Edmond Dantes is imprisoned in the dungeons of the Chateau D’If.  He is sunk in despair until he is roused by a faint tapping on the adjecent wall. The tapping is of course from the Abbé Faria, a political prisoner of immense erudition — and wealth. Everyone familiar with the story will recognize the familiar problems Dantes faced in the Chateau. The first was making contact with any other node at all. The second problem is establishing a common communications protocol.  A third problem is trust. What or who is on the other side of the wall?


In Edmond Dantes’ case the network led to the treasure of Monte Cristo and revenge against his enemies. But not always.

The self-discovering network problem is faced by people as disparate as clandestine organizers to those seeking to contact alien civilizations.  Daniel Drezner in Foreign Policy argues that the mere act of trying to reach out brings with it certain inescapable dangers, but we may decide to accept this as Dantes did. In his article ‘How do you say “realpolitik” in Klingon?’ he writes that in international security problems there is “full information about who the other actors are and where they are located”. That isn’t necessarily true of alien civilizations and come to think of it, isn’t necessarily true of people we meet online. Interestingly, Drezner also argues that other networks may be in possession of information we don’t have simply because they are connected to more nodes. “Which begs the question —  wouldn’t Hawking’s isolationist policy allow the quislings to monopolize the galactic message emanating from Earth?”

One reason Downfall may be having such a hard time is that he wants to invest in avatars, which is what a pickup script is — a representation of the actual entity —  when in fact what any woman worth meeting is probably looking for is the ability to see past the avatar. A lot of the interaction between men and women might otherwise come under the title of reconnaissance. But the mere fact that he’s inept in a certain way may work in his favor. Any woman who likes Downfall genuinely must like him for himself and not for the script he offers as an initial protocol.  He wouldn’t want to be the member of a club that would accept him for being anything but himself. Of course you can change yourself, and that is often the answer. Got bad breath? Get rid of it. Still despite everything you can always blow it.



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