Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few further thoughts on norms, experience, etc.

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A few follow-ups on two recent, overlapping texts ([1] ,[2]):

  1. In the previous texts, I argue against adopting furniture/ideas/methods/behaviors/whatnot that we see used by others by convention. However, there is nothing wrong with adopting them when they bring us a net benefit. Similarly, it is not necessarily wrong to temporarily adopt something as an experiment to see whether it would bring a net benefit. (With some reservations for the cost of the temporary adoption.) On the contrary, I strongly encourage looking at others as an “experience short-cut”—as long as it is done with a critical mindset, while keeping oneself the final arbiter of what is beneficial, and with an eye at an individualized adoption.* Indeed, failure to be open to such impulses is just a variation of the “take the norm for granted fallacy”—the norm now being the status quo, personal habits, whatnot (also see an excursion at the end).

    *Exactly this critical mindset was missing in some examples given in [1]: I bought a washing machine because I made a blanket assumption that I would benefit from it and/or through an unconscious attitude that a washing machine “belonged” in a household. The carpet and the chandelier, similarly, were not based on a thought-through decision about what would improve my then apartment. Instead, it verged on a fix idea that I had built when visiting my grand-mother as a child—when I grow up, my apartment will …

    For instance, when I (as a software developer) have seen someone else working or encountered his finished code, I have often found some idea that makes my own future work better. For instance, to stick with homes, I found the grilled sandwiches my father made during my recent visit to be delicious and bought a mini-grill of my own once back in Germany—and have been very happy with it as a value-adder.

    The latter also exemplifies the type of individualized adoption mentioned above: My father’s grill was a specialized sandwich toaster, while I went for a more general-purpose, low-end Foreman imitation. Firstly, this gave me more flexibility both to grill non-bread and to grill larger slices of bread, which suits my lower prioritization of kitchens and kitchen implements better—one tool for several tasks.* A sandwich toaster might be better at sandwiches at a given size, but then I would need other tools for other tasks. Secondly, it allowed me to duck the preparation problems my father occasionally had (e.g. regarding how the bread must be buttered), which suits my different effort-vs-taste priorities better.

    *The recurring reader might be surprised that I do not apply the Unix paradigm of “doing one thing well”. This is partially because different spheres (e.g. kitchen implements and software) can have different requirements, partially because the difference in quality is not that large (arguably, even a matter of taste), and partially because the “one” is largely a matter of complexity—and my grill is no more complex than my father’s. In contrast, a combined grill and coffee maker would have left me skeptical. It could even be argued that my grill is closer to Unix ideals through being more flexible at the same level of complexity.

  2. Untested assumptions can be troublesome, especially when a difficulty is under- or overestimated. (Also cf. an older text on how an easy task can be harder to do right.)

    For instance, my problems with orders and deliveries of shelves and whatnots (cf. some earlier texts) are examples of underestimating difficulties, of assuming that something would “work as advertised”. (More correctly, “work sufficiently close to advertised that I did not spend hours of effort and encounter weeks of delays, only to have nothing to show for it in the end”. I have been burnt before…)

    For instance, my later measures to remedy my shelf situation show overestimation, the assumption that a certain difficulty would be so tough that I had to make it easier: I spotted a cheap and light-weight* shelf, which reached an assembled height of 1.5 m while being just 0.8 m long pre-assembly. Seeing this as something that I could realistically bring home on my own, I bought one to see whether I could make it fit with my plans.

    *Six kg per a later weighing.

    In order to get it home, roughly 2.5 km away, I bought a large plastic bag at the check-out counter and took the train for most of the way. The plastic bag was more of a hindrance than a help, because it lacked the depth needed, forcing me to repeatedly intervene, lest the package fall out of the bag.

    Satisfied with the assembled shelf, I later bought two more to approximately cover my original shelf-needs.* I brought a luggage-on-wheels to make the transport easier and to avoid a second train ride**, but found that it was hard to get both shelves to stay on at the same time***. As a result, I spent roughly half the way home “carting” both shelves, and half carting one and carrying the other. I found the going to be slower and the work harder in the former case. I had to stop for short rests several times, and saw virtual stars when I had gone up the stairs to my apartment (preceded by a bit of a hill).

    *The result has less depth and height, compared to my original online attempts, but greater width. The maximal load is considerably lower, but that is not currently a problem.

    **Whenever the distance, load, time, whatnot, does not make it unrealistic, I try to walk as a matter of course.

    ***This might have been solvable with e.g. a rope.

    Yesterday, this time to extend my kitchen, I bought another two of these shelves and, wiser from experience, just took one under each arm and walked. Apart from a few red-lights, I never stopped and I never, not even at the red-lights, put either of the shelves down until I was at the house-door—and then only because I needed free hands to find my keys… Compared to the second time, I was home earlier, I was less tired (both in terms of “cardio” and most individual muscles), and my hands were less sore.

    If I had not overestimated the difficulty of carrying the shelves, I would have saved myself a train ticket and a bag* (first time) and would have avoided a lot of paradoxical effort (the second time).

    *The bag was not expensive, but I thoroughly detest paying for items that display advertising and that often were complimentary in the past. Also see e.g. [3].)

    Note, however, that this is not a recommendation to be optimistic—the way to go is to be realistic. If in doubt, gather more data or make an experiment. For instance, my first trip, with just the one shelf, would have been a perfect opportunity to gather experience with little risk, seeing that I could have alternated between rested arms. If I still had found myself over-challenged, I could just have dropped into a coffee shop for a cup, a sandwich, and a twenty minute rest.

Excursion on the status quo as norm:
An over-focus on the status quo as a norm is quite common, especially in the business world. (With some variations, e.g the “not invented here” phenomenon.) A particularly annoying case is the German claim/cliche “X hat sich bewährt” (roughly, “X has proven it self”) as a means to silence suggestions for something new or to end a discussion without actually providing factual arguments. When used honestly and insightfully, this claim is not something bad, because it would point to an evaluation of X based on experiences and experimentation. In reality, however, it is (be it as an excuse or through narrow-mindedness) almost always code for “this is what we have always done, and we do not care to experiment”, “we tried this once, the apocalypse did not follow, and we have stuck with it ever since”, “this was originally my idea and I will stick with it till the bitter end”, “I do not know why X was chosen, but someone must have had a reason”, or something similarly narrow-minded.

As a special case, that the current choice once was legitimately good (which might often be the case), does not imply that it still is: There might be better choices available today (but not back then). The needs to be filled might have changed. The world with which the choice interacts might have changed to make it work less well. Etc. Correspondingly, it can pay to re-evaluate choices every now and then—even when those choices were originally well made. That T-Ford is not a good choice for car, be it in absolute terms or relative the price.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 17, 2019 at 3:50 am

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