Uniformitarian or Paretoist

A uniformitarian view is that everything is equally important. For example, there are 118 elements in the periodic table, so all 118 are equally important to know about.

The Pareto principle would say that importance is usually very unevenly distributed. The universe is essentially hydrogen and helium, with a few other elements sprinkled in. From an earthly perspective things aren’t quite so extreme, but still a handful of elements make up the large majority of the planet. The most common elements are orders of magnitude more abundant than the least.

The uniformitarian view is a sort of default, not often a view someone consciously chooses. It’s a lazy option. No need to think. Just trudge ahead with no particular priorities.

The uniformitarian view is common in academia. You’re given a list of things to learn, and they all count the same. For example, maybe you have 100 vocabulary words in your Spanish class. Each word contributes one point to your grade on a quiz. The quiz measures what portion of the list you’ve learned, not what portion of that language you’ve learned. A quiz designed to test the latter would weigh words according to their frequency.

It’s easy to slip into a uniformitarian mindset, or a milder version of the same, underestimating how unevenly things are distributed. I’ve often fallen into the latter. I expect things to be unevenly distributed, but then I’m surprised just how uneven they are once I look at some data.

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Help wanted

I’m looking for people to help with some miscellaneous tasks. I don’t expect one person to do everything, but if you’re excellent at any of the following and interested in small projects please let me know.

  • CSS / responsive design
  • WordPress customization
  • Emacs customization
  • Advanced LaTeX
  • Data cleaning and visualization
  • Python (miscellaneous automation scripts)

I don’t have an immediate project to outsource, but these tasks come up occasionally and I’d like to have someone to contact when they do. Mostly these would be small self-contained projects, though data cleaning and visualization could be larger.

 

 

People want Swiss Army Knives

I ran across this graphic this morning on Twitter:

comparing a scalpel and a swiss army knife

Obviously the intended message is that scalpels are better than Swiss Army Knives. Certainly the scalpel looks simpler.

But most people would rather have a Swiss Army Knife than a scalpel. Many people, myself included, own a Swiss Army Knife but not a scalpel. (I also have a Letherman multi-tool that the folks at Snow gave me and I like it even better than my Swiss Army Knife.)

People like simplicity, at least a certain kind of simplicity, more in theory than in practice. Minimalist products that end up in the MoMA generally don’t fly off the shelves at Walmart.

The simplicity of a scalpel is superficial. The realistic alternative to a Swiss Army Knife, for ordinary use, is a knife, two kinds of screwdriver, a bottle opener, etc. The Swiss Army Knife is the simpler alternative in that context.

A surgeon would rightfully prefer a scalpel, but not just a scalpel. A surgeon would have a tray full of specialized instruments, collectively more complicated than a Swiss Army Knife.

I basically agree with the Unix philosophy that tools should do one thing well, but even Unix doesn’t follow this principle strictly in practice. One reason is that “thing” and “well” depend on context. The “thing” that a toolmaker has in mind may not exactly be the “thing” the user has in mind, and the user may have a different idea of when a tool has served well enough.

Experts vs Professionals

Working with professionals can be a joy. Not only can they solve your problem, they may help you see what problem you should solve. I’ve had several instances lately when I hired a pro to do something I’d attempted myself. In each case I was very pleased and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. Offhand I can’t think of an example where I regretted hiring a professional.

Strictly speaking, a professional in some area is simply someone who is paid to do it. But informally, we think of a professional as someone who not only is paid for their services, they’re also good at what they do. The two ideas are not far apart. People who are paid to do something are usually good at it, and the fact that they are paid is evidence that they know what they’re doing.

Experts, however, are not always so pleasant to work with.

Anyone can call himself an expert, and there’s no objective way to test this claim. But it’s usually obvious whether someone is a professional. When you walk into a barber shop, for example, it’s safe to assume the people standing behind the chairs are professional barbers.

Often the categories of “professional” and “expert” overlap. But it is suspicious when someone is an expert and not a professional. It implies that their knowledge is theoretical and untested. If someone says she is an expert in the stock market but not an investor, I wouldn’t ask her to invest my money. When I need my house painted, I don’t want to hire an expert on paint, I want a professional painter.

Sometimes experts appear to be professionals though they are not. Their expertise is in one area but their profession is something else. Political pundits are not politicians but journalists and entertainers. Heads of scientific agencies are not scientists but administrators. University presidents are not educators or researchers but fundraisers. In each case they may have once been practitioners in their perceived areas of expertise, though not necessarily.

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Taking responsibility for the mistakes of others

The version of Windows following 8.1 will be Windows 10, not Windows 9. Apparently this is because Microsoft knows that a lot of software naively looks at the first digit of the version number, concluding that it must be Windows 95 or Windows 98 if it starts with 9.

Many think this is stupid. They say that Microsoft should call the next version Windows 9, and if somebody’s dumb code breaks, it’s their own fault.

People who think that way aren’t billionaires. Microsoft got where it is, in part, because they have enough business savvy to take responsibility for problems that are not their fault but that would be perceived as being their fault.

Closed-world expertise

Venkat Rao has an interesting take on the ideas of deliberate practice, flow, and the 10,000 hour rule. In The Deliberate Practice of Disruption he points out that these ideas of expertise are always presented in closed worlds.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work … is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” … all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Rao’s essay may be a bit too harsh on closed-world domains and a bit too romantic about open-world domains, but the distinction between the domains is important. You don’t become a successful entrepreneur, for example, the same way you become a successful violinist. Closed worlds place a much higher emphasis on error-elimination, at least initially, than do open worlds. In an open world, the concept of an error may not even make sense. Where there is no law there is no sin.

Consulting is a more open world than academia. As Rao notes, academia can close off an otherwise open world through “bureaucratic productivity measures like publications and citations.” Clients are happy if you solve their problems. They could not care less whether your solutions are publishable and all that implies. Original and thoroughly footnooted work that doesn’t solve their problems is not appreciated.

Clients are not going to give you an oral exam to see whether you’ve mastered some canon. And they don’t care if you cross academic boundary lines to use something “outside your field.” They do care about credentials sometimes, but in a pragmatic way: they may need someone with the right credentials to review something. In that case, your credentials are part of the solution.

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Sometimes definitions are enough

Sometimes you can apply math just by raiding it for vocabulary. You may not need to apply a single theorem.

This has been a surprise to me. I’m more used to creating a mathematical model so you can compute something or apply some theorem. But sometimes you can move a project along just by providing a name for a concept. A meandering discussion can snap into focus because someone has a name for an idea everyone vaguely understands.

Sometimes it may be clear that only part of a mathematical definition applies. In this case math can guide the discussion by asking whether the rest of the definition applies. “It sounds like we’ve got a widget here. A widget has to have these five properties and clearly we have the first three. Let’s think about whether the last two hold.” The answers don’t have to be positive to be useful. You might realize something important in the process of explaining why your thing is not a widget.

Sometimes a definition may not apply at all and still be useful! “This reminds me of a widget. It’s not a widget in any strict sense. But if it were, this is what we’d do next. I wonder whether we can do something like that.”

 

Looking like you know what you’re doing

I’ve been in The Netherlands this week for a conference where I gave a talk on erasure coding. Last night after the conference, my host drove me and another speaker to Schiphol Airport. I’m staying in Amsterdam, but it was easier to drop us both at the airport because it’s a short train ride from there into the city.

After wandering around for a bit, I found where I believed I should wait for the train, though I wasn’t entirely sure. While I was standing there a group of half-drunk young men from Scotland walked to the platform and asked me questions about the train. One of the group thought they were on the wrong platform, but I heard their leader say “He’s got glasses and a beard. He’s obviously more intelligent than us.” Apparently they found this argument convincing and they stayed.

Neither my nearsightedness nor my facial hair made me an expert on Dutch trains. This was my first time catching a train in a new country where most of the signs were written in a language I do not know. I imagine they’ve ridden more trains than I have. The only advantage I had over them was my sobriety. Maybe my experience as a consultant has enabled me to give confidence-inspiring advice on subjects I know less about than I’d like.

Central Station in Amsterdam

Time and Productivity

Contractors were working on my house all last week. I needed to be home to let them in, to answer questions, etc., but the noise and interruptions meant that home wasn’t a good place for me to work. In addition, my Internet connection was out for most of the week and I had a hard disk failure.

Looking back on the week, my first thought was that the week had been an almost total loss, neither productive nor relaxing. But that’s not right. The work I did do made a difference, reinforcing my belief that effort and results are only weakly correlated. (See Weinberg’s law of twins.)

Sometimes you have a burst of insight or creativity, accomplishing more in a few minutes than in an ordinary day. But that didn’t happen last week.

Sometimes your efforts are unusually successful, either because of the preparation of previous work or for unknown reasons. That did happen last week.

Sometimes you simply work on more important tasks out of necessity. Having less time to work gives focus and keeps work from expanding to fill the time allowed. That also happened last week.

***

I did get out of the house last Tuesday and wrote about it in my previous post on quality over quantity. This turned out to the theme of the week.

A year of consulting

I’ve been out on my own for about a year now, and it’s been a blast. If you’ve read this blog for a while you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been working in math, software development, and especially the overlap of the two.

As far as areas of math, I did more probability modeling than anything else. Also some work with time series, differential equations, networks, and to my surprise, a little category theory. As for software, I mostly worked in Python, R, and C++, writing code for data analysis and numerical algorithms.

People often ask what industry I work with, but my work cuts across industries. Last year I worked for a couple pharmaceuticals, a couple software companies, a search engine, etc. The most unexpected clients I had were a game developer and a wallet manufacturer.

I did a lot of small projects last year, especially when I was first getting started. It’s hard to live off small projects, but they’re fun. Micro-consulting on retainer is better. You get the variety and sense of accomplishment of small projects, but with more steady income. I have larger projects now, but I plan to keep squeezing in a few smaller projects as well as micro-consulting.

It looks like this year will be busier than last. I have a lot more lined up than I did this time last year. I expect to do the same kind of work I did last year. I expect to branch out a little as well, though it’s too early to say much about that.

I also expect to travel more this year as well. I’ll be in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles this week and Seattle later this month. In March I’m going to The Netherlands. If you’re in one of these areas and want to get together, please let me know.

 

Whether to delegate

You shouldn’t necessarily do things that you’re good at. In economics, this idea is known as comparative advantage. Delegating may free up your time to do something more profitable. It might be to a country’s advantage to import something that they could produce cheaper domestically. Importing one thing might free up resources to export another thing that’s more valuable.

Comparative advantage is often illustrated by a hypothetical lawyer and an assistant. A lawyer who can type very quickly is still better off hiring someone else to do the typing because he can make much more per hour practicing law. If he could type twice as fast as an assistant, and he could earn more than twice as much practicing law as it costs to hire an assistant, he makes money by delegating.

This illustration makes sense at one level, but it also sounds a little quaint. In fact lawyers do quite a bit of typing. That’s explained by another economic idea: transaction costs. It costs time to recruit and hire an assistant. And once you have an assistant, it takes time to explain what you want done, time to wait for the work to come back, time to review the work, etc.

Highly paid executives type their own emails, at least some of the time, because it’s not worth the transaction costs to have someone else do it. But for a larger task, say typing up hundreds of handwritten pages, it’s worth paying the transaction costs to get someone else to do the typing.

Most advice on delegation is simplistic. It ignores transaction costs, and has a naive view of opportunity costs. It says that if you make $50 an hour, you should delegate anything you can hire done for $40 an hour since the opportunity cost of doing the $40 an hour task rather than delegating it is $10 an hour. But things are more subtle than that.

Opportunity costs only apply if you’re turning down an opportunity. If you stop doing $50 an hour work to do $40 an hour work, then you’re losing $10 an hour compared to what you could earn (ignoring the transaction costs of delegating). But if you don’t have $50 an hour work to do, if you’re otherwise idle, then delegating $40 an hour work is costing you $40 an hour, not saving you $10 per hour.

People are not machines. If you have an idle machine, give it work to do. And if two machines could do the same work, use the one that can do the work the cheapest. But people are more complicated. We like some kinds of work better than others, we learn, and we need time to rest.

Suppose you enjoy doing work that you could delegate for $40 an hour. You find it refreshing. There’s no opportunity cost in doing it yourself if the time to do it comes out of time you would have spent on a hobby.

Suppose you don’t enjoy doing work that you could delegate, but there’s something you could learn from doing it. In that case, there may be an opportunity benefit as well as an opportunity cost: learning something new may create opportunities in the future.

The previous two paragraphs account for enjoyment and learning, but not rest. If you don’t have $50 an hour work to do, doing $40 an hour work is only one alternative. Another alternative is to do nothing, which is very valuable in ways that are hard to quantify. And even work you enjoy may take energy away from other work.

Managing energy is more important than managing time. Energy is what gets things done, and time is only a crude surrogate for energy. Instead of only looking at what you could earn per hour versus what you could hire someone else for per hour, consider the energy it would take you to do something versus the energy it would free to delegate it.

If something saps your energy and puts you in a bad mood, delegate it even if you have to pay someone more to do it than it would cost you do to yourself. And if something gives you energy, maybe you should do it yourself even if someone else could do it cheaper.

Finally, note that energy isn’t the same as pleasure, though they often go hand in hand. Some activities are enjoyable but draining, and some are not enjoyable but invigorating. For example, I enjoy teaching, but it takes a lot out of me. And most people don’t enjoy exercise that much even though it gives them energy.

Micro-consulting and mentoring

Sometimes a quick answer to a question is priceless. It can even be valuable to know that you could get a quick answer to a question, even if you never ask. For example, if your company is considering doing something new, knowing that there’s someone to help could make the difference in the decision to go forward.

Next year I’ll be offering this sort of micro-consulting and mentoring. For a monthly retainer, I will be available to answer questions and give advice. This would be for questions I could answer on the spot or with minimal research; anything more involved would have to be a separate consulting project. You would be guaranteed my availability for a certain amount of time per month and a quick turn-round on correspondence. (My response might be “I don’t know,” but I’d get back to you promptly.)

I’ve done some of this kind of consulting, and clients have found it very valuable. I’d like to do more of this next year as a way to fill some of the interstitial time between larger projects. I also expect it will lead to larger projects, e.g. “We like your idea of what we should do. Could you do it for us?”

If this sounds interesting to you, please contact me.