Monday, February 4, 2013

The Michael Jordan Effect, or Shallow Specialized Knowledge


The last time I was in Boston, I was chatting with our VP of Product, Will, about games and sports and things, and he mentioned that he watches a lot of Jeopardy, and he can impress his in-laws by calling a lot of the answers. But, he said, knowing the answers on Jeopardy is less impressive than it initially seems due to something called "the Michael Jordan effect" – in other words, the answer in any given category is often as well-known or "mainstream" as Michael Jordan is to basketball. In other other words, you don't need a lot of deep knowledge to be good at Jeopardy; you just need shallow knowledge in a lot of areas. The Michael Jordan of architecture is Frank Lloyd Wright, the Michael Jordans of Russian literature are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, etc.

I knew exactly what he was talking about because years ago, my brother and I discovered "the Wilt Chamberlain" effect in Trivial Pursuit. At least for whatever edition we had at the time, the answer to any basketball question, something like 4 out of 5 times, was Wilt Chamberlain. So whether or not you "knew" the answer, it was always a safe guess. Similarly, Winston Churchill was always the answer to British history questions. In general, the more Trivial Pursuit you play, the easier it becomes to guess correctly, partially due to the Michael Jordan effect, and partially because the questions often contain little clues as to what kind of answer they'd be looking for. The thing is, Trivial Pursuit writers are mad about irony. For example, when a question seems to suggest a high number based on assumption, the real answer is almost always 0 or 1. And if you get a question like "What is the 17th windiest city  in America?" you don't have to know the top 20 windiest cities in order; you only have to know that Chicago is known as the Windy City, so ha ha that it's not even in the top 10.

Scrabble and crossword puzzles are the same way; there's a perception that you have to be really "smart" to do well at these games, but they're actually specialized skills. Someone who plays Scrabble all the time is going to do better than a very smart person with a good vocabulary who has never played before, because really short basic words often lead to higher-scoring turns, if you know how to play them. With crosswords, the same words tend to pop up over and over again, and as in Trivial Pursuit, the clues have their own conventions.

What other games/skills are prone to the Michael Jordan effect?

~

In unrelated news, I'm always shocked by which women men do and don't find attractive. There's a woman in Denver who I think of as quite obviously one of the most attractive in our larger social circle. Last night John said he's never even noticed her, that she's "pretty" but fades into the background. In this case, I guess I can see that she's the kind of woman who would be more attractive to other women than men, because she's very small and wears good clothes. But it seems like every time I mention a woman that I find attractive, some man in the room will comment that she's nothing special. In fact, I can remember another time recently that I remarked on another woman in Denver, who again I find obviously beautiful, and two men in the room said something to the effect of "She's the kind of woman only other women find beautiful." But I can't figure out if there's really so little overlap in what I find attractive in women and what men find attractive in women, or if it's just that men have impossible standards – at least when it comes to the abstract question of who is quote-unquote attractive, as opposed to who they might end up sleeping with.

47 comments:

  1. I don't know about other games but "Ronald Reagan" was always a safe bet in the 1986 "Genus Edition" of Trivial Pursuit we had kicking around. I used to play with my friend and his sister, who were very competitive. There was a semi-obscene "pie dance" that was performed when one filled a wedge.

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    1. Pie dance! I love it. My brother had all these weird rituals around Trivial Pursuit, or TP as we called it. We had one edition with images of various celebrities, pop culture references, famous places, etc. superimposed on the squares, and one of the squares had a picture of Tiny Tim (the musician, not the Dickens character), and that square was considered cursed. The worst possible roll in the game was a 1 when you were stuck between Tiny Tim and the sports category. (We sucked at sports ... my brother may be better now, I think he actually started watching football in the past few years.)

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  2. The harder question is whether there are games that _aren't_ prone to the Michael Jordan effect. (Perhaps one can put this in terms of the Kahneman System 1 / System 2 classification. "Specialized skill" is in most cases a matter of offloading as much of the burden onto System 1 as possible; to be unskilled is to have to use System 2 all the time. Some kinds of task -- I've always had this issue with combinatorics and other discrete math -- are pretty difficult to offload onto System 1 in my experience, but I've never quite figured out if the people who are good at these things have better heuristics or are better at working with System 2.)

    I often don't see the point of men that women consider attractive; most of the time they look like exhibitionists or jerks to me.

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    1. Hm, yeah, certainly all or almost all games become easier the more you do them, though the Michael Jordan effect seems like a somewhat specialized case (broad shallow knowledge). Most games are more like Scrabble, where it's just a single skill that you get better and better at the more you do it. (Well, until you plateau.) But good question: Are there games that only require general skill/intelligence? I mean, very learned people clean up at trivia not because they know the conventions but because they actually know the answers....

      I'm not sure I'm in alignment with other women when it comes to which men I find attractive either. I like feminine features in both men and women.

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  3. Popped on to mention the ubiquity of Ronald Regan from the original game--and my own pie song, the lyrics of which are "Pie, pie pie, pie pie pie pie pie pie--PIE!"--but it seems Matt Boulanger and I are the same person.

    I keep meaning to write something about "men's women" versus "women's women," but every time I try I wind up stumped as to what it's really about. Because it's not just about blatant sex appeal--that's too obvious--nor is it about fashion sense/style appealing more to women. But I can't put my finger on what exactly it is, probably in part because it's so contextual. I've had this discussion with friends and it inevitably turns to whether we ourselves are men's women or women's women, and there's never a consensus from group to group.

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    1. I hope you do write something about it. It's complicated, isn't it? I can think of one woman I know who I'm pretty sure is both a man's woman and a woman's woman. There is something "safe" and maternal about her but at the same time she is sexy.

      I always though men tended to prefer women who were really friendly and approachable, but my boyfriend says he doesn't find women attractive unless they're a bit "wicked."

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    2. Oh, and this is probably a good time to revisit the post I wrote about long hair vs. short hair. There's a theory that women like when other women cut their hair because they know (deep inside, unconsciously, whatever) that men prefer long hair, so when another woman cuts her hair that's reducing competition within the pool. Yipes! Similarly, one might argue that women are somehow ingrained to prefer the kinds of beauty that men don't prefer, because they feel competitive with the truly "attractive" women? (Ugh.)

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    3. So the real question is what woman would the typical woman feel threatened by?

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    4. Perhaps the women who evidently have the most partners -- hence the tendency to "slut-shame" them or theorize that they only get attention because they're easy.

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  4. Maybe the divergence of male and female perceptions of beauty can be explained by the consumer vs. producer dynamic. Not in the sense that women are attacking/undermining the competition, but rather in the sense that women have an appreciation for technique that men don't care about. You see this in movies, where critics like movies that are daring or inventive in terms of filmmaking technique, while the general public only cares whether the movie is entertaining or whatever. Douthat wrote something along these lines about Ratatouille.

    So women care about the fine points and turn up their noses at crowd-pleasing schlock. Men want crowd-pleasing schlock! To use another example, women could be seen as beer snobs who are knowledgeable about style and punish deviations. ("There shouldn't be smoky notes in a Scottish ale, it's not to style.") Men are like casual beer drinkers who aren't invested in theory or tradition and just want something that tastes good. Smoky notes in a Scottish ale? Sounds great!

    This makes men sound like barbarians (I guess I am showing my colors as a beer snob), but I think women (and beer snobs) sometimes lose sight of what beauty and beer are really for. Actually, now that I've put it that way, I can see that it reflects a pretty narrow viewpoint on what beauty is for. Presumably some women care about beauty instrumentally, and for them, it is important not to let their conception of beauty diverge too far from what men find attractive. But then, other women may not care a bit what men think. So you can have elaborate conceptions of beauty that bear no relation to what men will like (just the way some great movies can never be commercially successful).

    But so, I guess to me the real question is whether the two conceptions of beauty must have any connection to each other. Even if women don't care primarily about attracting men, is there still something that compels them to take men's tastes into account? Back to the film analogy - does a movie need to be at least somewhat accessible/watchable to be considered great?

    This is very thought-provoking, I will mull it over some more.

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    1. "So women care about the fine points and turn up their noses at crowd-pleasing schlock. Men want crowd-pleasing schlock!"

      Ha ha! This is a good theory, I think some element of it is true. Women often say that they dress more for other women than men, because women are usually more appreciative of subtleties, they notice when you get something new, etc.

      But it actually matches up with the whole "slut-shaming" thing in a way too -- like when a woman wears a low-cut top or a short skirt it's like she's going for cheap entertainment, taking the easy way out, like making a movie with lots of tits and violence.

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  5. Very interesting topic(s) Elisa. The board game question seems pretty complex, and I have no idea how to approach the attractiveness question. I think I remember it was Angie Dickinson who famously replied to Johnny Carson, when asked who she dressed for, men or women, that she dressed for women and undressed for men.

    Tip for Trivial Pursuit players: the answer to any question about Iceland is probably Reyjavic (or spellit).

    One aspect of many board games (chance/strategy) that often gets overlooked is game bias as it pertains to risk management. A number of games tend to reward players who tend to take greater risks, within certain limits.

    I've always loved board games and miss them in this day and age of computer games, etc., and I know they are still here, but for some reason they simply don't 'feel' the same any more. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. I remember from a game of bar trivia in grad school that Reykjavik is the northern-most world capital.

      I am risk averse, so I do poorly at those types of games. I also hate the game Risk.

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  6. I last played Trivial Pursuit on one of my first high school "dates". A pizza restaurant in our town put the cards on the tables for something to do while you waited for your food.

    I got my first kiss that day.

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    1. I know a couple of restaurants that do that.

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  7. A couple weeks back I heard that Milton Bradley was retiring a couple game pieces and adding a couple new ones to Monopoly, which is just wrong.

    I really hope one of them wasn't the iron.

    Win or lose, in Monopoly, I'm always The Iron.

    tpeterson

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  8. You are probably right Elisa, lol. Which is maybe one of the reasons why I cling to it so much, I guess, and absolutely wrinkle at the thought of losing it.

    Honestly, though, I bet you could still find a few folks holding on for dear life to all kinds of seemingly lesser things. The thimble comes to mind. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. My best friend in high school was mildly devastated by the loss of light brown M&M's.

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  9. Now you'd be speaking my language.

    I feel your best friend in high school's pain, though not in the clearly placating more typical Bill Clintonish way. We're talking real loss here.

    The Iron of Sentimentality,

    tpeterson

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  10. My high school Quiz Bowl team was asked a series of questions about opera, in which I had only a casual interest at the time. We guessed "Wagner" on each question and finally got one right.

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  11. I would guess women probably prefer women who look like prepubescent boys. Shorter hair, delicate features, thin lips. Many stars tend to be androgynous, girls who can look boyish (Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder) (I won't comment on the male stars). Women probably don't like women who play young - I had a friend who always went into her little-girl voice when she wanted something. It drove the other females batty. Britney Spears is probably not going to appeal to other women.

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    1. I just read recently that despite the cultural idea that deep, sultry, husky voices are attractive, most men strongly prefer women to have higher-pitched voices. The article cited studies that women (unconsciously?) raise the pitch of their voices when talking to men.

      As for what *I* find attractive in women: Symmetrical faces that aren't TOO perfect. I like surface quirks like a well-placed mole (AKA beauty mark), freckles on the nose, slightly quirky teeth, a widow's peak, etc. I like a strong jaw/chin in both men and women. I tend to notice noses because I have a weird nose myself. I like the kind of vague exoticism that comes from mixed race backgrounds (I am sorry if that's racist, but I do find it beautiful). I often admire stylish women with short hair but find long hair more objectively beautiful. Body-wise, I like thin frames but with visible musculature.

      FWIW, I don't think the women you named are very androgynous. They have extremely feminine faces I think, such that even with very short hair they undeniably look like attractive women.

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  12. When a man is asked by a woman he's involved with if another woman is attractive, his answer may have little to do with how attractive he finds the woman in question. This is not to suggest that John can't find a woman attractive without hurting your feelings; but any evidence you cull from anyone may be tainted by this etiquette.

    That said, I've often been surprised by the women other men find attractive (John included). I think the idea that some women are beautiful to women but not to men is flawed.

    Have you seen the "Prince Family Paper" episode of The Office? The secondary story line features a debate over whether or not Hilary Swank is hot. I'd say: sometimes. And that's another facet of your observation to consider. A woman who doesn't stand out to a man in one context may in another. One day she wears bright colors, she wears her hair differently, she demonstrates athletic ability or wit, the room she's in is lit by sunlight, etc., etc.

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    1. That's true, but it doesn't explain comparative assessments. I mean, if John says "X is not attractive, but Y is" or "I think X is way more attractive than Y" (where X and Y both women that are not me), I assume there's some truth to it, even if he's downplaying how attractive the women actually are to him?

      Also, I think everyone judges people more attractive if they like them. So a woman is more likely to think he friends are attractive then her enemies. (And be offended if men find her enemies more attractive than her friends.)

      I haven't seen that episode, but my vote is no. Ha! Have you seen the original movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? She plays one of the dumb, bitchy popular chicks.

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    2. I used to a know a girl who claimed that when she hated another girl, she was likely to dream of having sex with that girl.

      She had sex with both boys and girls.

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  13. Not sure your premise in paragraph 2 above holds water, but context is certainly a factor with regard to attractiveness. With regard to attractiveness/physicality, there are millions of studies. If I remember right, some features, even across cultures, tend to be valued more. But, I think it's still a pretty safe bet to say that attractiveness is highly subjective.

    Possibly related, I noticed, having been sucked in to watch the most recent couple seasons of Survivor, that I found most of the women (and maybe the men) to be far more attractive on day 27 or whatever out in the jungle than when they arrived back in the New York studio. Survivor Effect?

    Also, a fun game to play if you find yourself watching Survivor, is to guess who will be voted off the show (anyone who was even halfway good at a board game like Clue can usually tell, based on production/editing decisions, within the first twenty or thirty minutes of the show). Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. Which paragraph are you referring to? I've always maintained that there are objective measures of attractiveness, averages, tendencies, etc. -- it's when you talk to one person that all bets are off in terms of what they're going to like, personally.

      I've never been a Survivor watcher, though I think I saw an episode or two of the season with that woman who went on to be on The View (I only know this because she has celiac disease and wrote a book about eating gluten free). Anyway, by mid-season, everyone was both very tan and very lean.

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  14. Para 2, the one that starts

    Also, I think everyone judges people more attractive if ...

    Said argument has numerous problems getting across the road, Elisa, starting maybe with the chicken/egg conundrum. But don't mind me, I'm probably bitter still about the iron.

    And yes, tan and lean, you'd think we'd all be more attractive, but I don't think that's exactly it either.

    It has something more to do with makeup, I think, and how much one cares about certain things at certain times. And lighting, of course. And how one combs her hair.

    tpeterson

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    1. Oh come on, you've never had the experience where you met someone, thought nothing of them (looks-wise), then later became friends with them (or started dating them) and suddenly "realized" they were attractive? Personality goes a long way, attraction is not purely physical.

      In general, people get more attractive over the course of reality shows because more and more gets left to stylists and other professionals. You can see the same effect on shows like American Idol, etc.

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  15. Well, that's not exactly what I was trying to say, but maybe that's the problem.

    Perhaps people get more and more attractive over the course of some reality shows because less gets left to stylists/pros, although I always suspect there might be a salon set up on Survivor just south of the banana tree.

    I'd like to believe you, Elisa, but no way am I going to watch American Idol, lol.

    tpeterson

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    1. I haven't watched American Idol in a long time, but I read recently that Katherine McPhee (who I guess was on Idol and is now an actress?) consciously tried to look bad/average at the beginning because she knew that viewers like "a transformation"

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  16. Edited/corrected to say, that both is and is not what I was trying to say ...

    tpeterson

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  17. Ha, I like your Idol anecdote.

    Knowing what 'viewers' like should be a big part of this entire discussion, and it kind of brings both attractiveness and board games full circle.

    Good games take time.

    You would not believe the amount of work that went in to certain early computer sporting simulations to improve AI (artificial intelligence).

    What good gamers tend to do in order to win, when they are playing good games, and even not so good ones, is to figure out what is needed to win. Thus, how tendencies are handled becomes one incredibly important part of the equation.

    No matter how much time one spends thinking about said things, it is really hard in the real world to ever get this exactly right, I think, no matter how close one comes. But this is coming from one whose idea of otherworldly female attractiveness leans toward the likes of Janeane Garofalo and/or Frances McDormand. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. Have you seen The Truth About Cats & Dogs? Pretty dumb movie, but it hinges on the idea on who is more attractive (to the male lead), Jeneane Garofalo or Uma Thurman.

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  18. That sounds familiar, but I can't remember a lot of movies with pets very well, especially ones from the year 2000 or before, except for maybe Best In Show and 101 Dalmations.

    My love for Garofalo goes way back though, circa Ben Stiller and SNL. She's the cat's pajamas, far as I'm concerned.

    tpeterson

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  19. I'm remembering an early 1960's T.V. version of College Bowl (quiz show) that in my memory at least (allowing that I was early grade school at the time) seemed to have questions that required a lot of real knowledge, both broad and in-depth. Not always, not all questions, but often.

    One question I remember in particular, from those many years ago -- a "bonus" question (so the team answering the question could collaborate on the answers) was, Name six of the nine countries that border Germany. For purposes of the question I guess they were counting East Germany and West Germany as a single country. It's not that hard to answer if you have a map in your head, though they were under time pressure to answer the question.

    At a place I worked years ago that involved constant answering phones, for a while we had a set of Trivial Pursuit cards that we would pass around, and ask each other the questions to pass the time. One evening the guy next to me started going through the cards and asking me the questions, and he was doing all six questions on a card before moving to the next card.

    One card had three questions (in three categories) that were closely related to each other. I don't remember the precise questions, but one of the answers was Robert Penn Warren (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the King's Men); one of the answers was All the King's Men (the movie made from the above novel, based on the life of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana); and one of the answers was Broderick Crawford (who won an Oscar for Best Actor for playing the lead in the movie All the King's Men.)

    My favorite games are ones with fairly simple rules that are difficult to play well, such as chess.

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    1. Yeah, certain editions of TP had themed cards, which meant you couldn't hold on to a card and ask someone multiple questions from it -- too easy. This was especially true of the Millennial edition, as I remember.

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  20. I tend to be suspicious about the line that gals go allout dresswise for other gals not guys--this screams of simplistic feminism to me; it feels a bit akin to this claim I think someone lol actually told me: thongs are ore comfortable than less stringy undergarmnts; I am hardpressed not to imagine comfort is being made synonymous with feeling sexy; and feeling sexy is a terrific feeling, a valuable one, I think, but it's not the normal realm of what's meant by comfortable. I guess I also question the gals for gals' eyes view because a girl--well she was at the time--who was at the time a student at Marlboro (excellent all girls school in Los Angeles)told me she loved going to a girls' school because there was no need to dress up, no heavy duty gaze culture. Of course a sample of one is not adequate; I realize this.

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    1. Ha ha! I actually wear almost exclusively thongs, the reason being that any hint of "visible panty line" makes me crazy. I do in fact find them more comfortable than underwear that takes up more space, being closer to the ideal of no underwear at all, which is impractical for various reasons. I do NOT think thongs look sexy. I really don't. I think other kinds of underwear are cuter/sexier. But the VPL thing. Key for me.

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  21. Fair enough--but I'd argue that at a macro level they are considered hotter; I sure think they have a fun, sorta cheesy neon-lighting sexpot quality; and I don't mean any of this as diss! I think flagrantly hot--what one cld deem haute slut--is wayyyyyyy underrated. The Guess girl look won't always work, but oh wowie can it be spot-on. Conversely, I'd love to see more women in well-cut pant suits!

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    1. Maybe so, but if I were going to buy lingerie for pure sex appeal it wouldn't be a thong. I think the sexiest underwear is the kind that only kind of half covers your ass -- but how do you get it to stay there, unless you're immobilized?! Thongs are strictly for wearing under clothes. When I take my clothes off, the underwear comes off too. I.e., I don't wear underwear under pajamas or lounge pants or whatever -- that would be absurd, like wearing a bra to bed.

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  22. But seeing a glimmer of thong in the space between pants or skirt and an ass is hottttttt. I watched The Last Emperror with my mom lastnight, and the fitting model wore a thong and when one saw a peek where the gown shifted it was pretty yummy. "Sugar on my tongue" (that Talking Heads song is, I think, hillarious) lol.

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    1. Hot maybe, but a cliche -- I guess things that are accepted to be hot will always become cliches? We were just listening to that song while driving in the mountains last weekend! I adore the TH's.

      I went through a phase in my mid-20s of wearing ill-fitting clothes (I lost some weight during and after a breakup) and was always getting shit from my friends about accidentally exposing my bra/breasts/thong/ass....

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  23. I feel like cliches are often sexy--or rather that sexy is often cliche; I'm glad you bring up that word!

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